The question:

The definite article 'the' has many usages. However, I cannot quite understand one usage, that is, 'used to mark a noun as being used generically'. What does it mean by 'noun being used generically'? Can anyone please shed some light on this and set some examples.

An example for this use is 'The dog is a quadruped.'

How can I distinguish if the author is expressing a generic noun/idea instead of specifying something in front of 'the'?

Readers Note:

Readers interested in this question might like this question here:

- A query about the use of Generic Reference with nationalities

That question is about using generic noun phrases with nationalities.

  • 1
    'The dog is vicious; it has bitten several people' uses the to specify one particular dog (the one that is under discussion). // 'The dog is a quadruped' is just another way of saying 'Dogs are four-legged animals' (ignoring, of course, the odd sad case). Sep 28, 2017 at 9:02
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    The linked-to question doesn't seem like a duplicate. There is an answer by John Lawler buried in there. However, it does not explain what is mean by generic apart from to say they are used as a way of "positing some proposition over a set". Instead he gives three different grammatical forms that a generic NP may take. Please, let's reopen this question. Sep 28, 2017 at 10:12
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    @Araucaria Yes. I need someone to provide dedicated weapons to help me distinguish if the author is expressing a generic noun/idea instead of specifying something in front of 'the'. Sep 28, 2017 at 10:22
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    @Araucaria - You're probably right. In fact, writing what you've found elsewhere and explaining why it doesn't answer your question is in fact what we ask for in questions! I withdraw my previous objection (but quite like being called "old bean") :D
    – AndyT
    Sep 28, 2017 at 11:27
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    My first comment here indicated that context (non-verbal where appropriate, but verbal in many cases) is used to distinguish generic from specifying usage. For a usage to be the specifying one, there must be previous (non-verbal or verbal) identification of the individual animal / object / ... involved. // "positing some proposition over a set" means making a general statement about a whole class (apart from outliers like amputee dogs). The dog is a quadruped / dogs are quadrupeds / a dog is a quadruped. / {dogs} ⊂ {quadrupeds}. Sep 28, 2017 at 13:28