I am somewhat confused by the use of singular langauge to discuss generally true statements, for example:

A cat is smarter than a dog.

The intention of this statement is to say that in general any given cat will be smarter than any given dog.

However, my interpretation of this is that it simply states there is a cat that is smarter than a dog, a statement which is different and much harder to prove.

Why is it that the first interpretation is meant when a statement like this is used?


2 Answers 2


The indefinite article a is used either to refer to a particular object or being with unknown identity or generically, which is the case of your example.

In the article On the Generic Use of Indefinite Singulars, Ariel Cohen, writes:

The distribution of indefinite singular generics is much more restricted than that of bare plural generics. The former, unlike the latter, seem to require that the property predicated of their subject be, in some sense, "definitional".

This is called indefinite generic. On this Linguistics site, @John Lawler (sound familiar?) writes:

The Indefinite Generic refers to the Definition of a species, that is, those properties that are absolutely necessary for anything to be a member. It doesn't work as the subject of any predicate that isn't definitional. But with a definitional property, it's certainly true for any member. And that's one of the reasons why the following sentence is ungrammatical:

*A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.

By this one is saying that being in danger of becoming extinct is one of the defining characteristics of tigerhood, which isn't true, after all. Tigers would still be tigers if they weren't endangered.

Now the quality of cats being smarter than dogs, might be a matter of opinion, but in the mind of the speaker, smartness is a defining element. Which is why this sentence is naturally understood in its generic sense. Certainly, in particular contexts, your sentence can definitely refer to a particular cat and a particular dog.

  • 1
    Thank you for the answer, I guess some of the issue is that is a difference between literal meaning and intended meaning and theres some context that has to be known.
    – user443414
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 16:28
  • Yes, without context, the most natural interpretation would be the generic one.
    – fev
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 16:31
  • 1
    On this site, John Lawler writes .... Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 19:46

A cat is smarter than a dog.

Your problem is that "a/an" has a meaning that it attaches to its noun. Among its related meaning are

a/an [noun] - one or any example of a [noun]; one [noun]; one [noun] selected at random, etc