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“The” can be used as a generic term for a class of things, e.g. “The elephant is the largest land animal.” This sounds fine, as does the more specific “The African elephant has larger ears than the Asian elephant.”

However, “The animal is a life form that consumes other life forms” sounds wrong, as does “The plant converts solar energy into chemical energy.” “Animals are life forms…” and “Plants convert…” sound better. Why is this?

It initially seems to be because “animal” is more general than “elephant”, and arguably there’s some subconscious level of generality where it crosses from “the” to “a” or just plural. But “The planet is a celestial body that has cleared its orbit” sounds wrong, while “The atom is a microscopic particle composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons” sounds right, and those feel approximately the same “level of generality.”

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    Very nice spot. Jul 24, 2023 at 16:42
  • 1
    It sounds weird not because of the grammar but because of the semantics. And the planet one would work in a context with other celestial bodies, depending.
    – Lambie
    Jul 24, 2023 at 17:09
  • 1
    Definite generics don't work well for things that are ill-defined or variegated, among others. Jul 24, 2023 at 17:17
  • To me, the sentence with "The atom is..." sounds quite awkward. So it appears intuitions may differ on this issue.
    – alphabet
    Jul 24, 2023 at 19:30
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    We name our planets, but we don’t name our atoms. Jul 25, 2023 at 2:08

2 Answers 2

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Here is CGEL's take on this.

8.4 Restricted non-referential uses of the articles

In this section, we cover non-referential uses of NPs [noun phrases] determined by the definite and indefinite articles that are permitted only with a restricted set of head nouns.

(a) Class uses of the definite article

NPs determined by the definite article can denote the entire class denoted by the head noun, rather than individual members or subsets within that class.

[16]  a.  The African elephant will soon be extinct.
         b.  The invention of the hydrogen bomb was the next step.
         c.  This chapter describes the English noun phrase.
         d.  The human brain has fascinated me ever since I was a child.

The boundaries of this usage with singular nouns are somewhat indeterminate, but it is clearly facilitated in the context of species ([ia]), inventions ([ib]), and areas of study, interest, or expertise ([ic-d]). [In what follows, recall that an asterisk (*) in front of an expression means that what follows is not acceptable English.] Compare, for example, *The hospital doctor is overworked with The hospital doctor is an endangered species round here, or *The tabloid newspaper is a disgrace with Hugo has turned the tabloid newspaper into a research industry.

The sentences marked by * are unacceptable if they are to be understood as talking about hospital doctors in general and tabloid newspapers in general. In these sentences, the NPs can only have referential interpretation: a particular (known from previous context) doctor is overworked; a particular (known from previous context) tabloid newspaper is a disgrace.

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  • As is often the case, Huddleston & Pullum have done an excellent job of describing the phenomenon, but little by way of explaining it, though perhaps there is no underlying principle here.
    – alphabet
    Jul 28, 2023 at 1:50
  • I'm not sure that I agree with their usage examples. "The tabloid newspaper is a disgrace, but the broadsheet is a paragon of journalism" seems acceptable to me. I may be picking nits, though. Jul 28, 2023 at 3:39
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Normally we use the to refer to a class generically.

The elephant is the largest land animal.

The box wrench is a type of wrench that fits over the nut, "boxing" it in.

Elephant is a member of class Animal. Box wrench is a member of class Wrench. There are other kinds of wrenches, too, such as open-end wrenches.

In order to refer generically to Animal as a member of a class, we need a context where there is an overarching class that contains member "Animal":

The Animal is an organism that feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.

The Vegetable is a living organism that lacks specialized sense organs and nervous system and is relatively slow to respond to stimuli [don't hold me to this definition; it's just an example ]

The Mineral is a solid inorganic naturally occurring substance.

They all belong to class Animal-Vegetable-Mineral. We might not have a ready name for that class, but it exists conceptually, and that's all that is needed to support this use of the definite article.

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    If someone said to me, "The Mineral is a solid inorganic naturally occurring substance," I wouldn't say, "Oh, that's a good definition." I'd say, "Which mineral?" Jul 25, 2023 at 0:28
  • Animal is a kingdom, not a class. Jul 25, 2023 at 2:06
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    In this second example, "The Animal" sounds borderline to me, but "The Vegetable" and "The Mineral" are clearly wrong. Jul 25, 2023 at 2:34
  • “The mineral” is definitely wrong.
    – Alex
    Jul 25, 2023 at 2:38
  • @MarcInManhattan Imagine the context to be someone setting out the category rules for the game Animal Vegetable Mineral. Change the indefinite article a(n) to any.
    – TimR
    Jul 28, 2023 at 21:09

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