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Hi, I have quick question about the use of "a" vs. "the" in the following sentences:

  • A doctor has the responsibility of helping the elderly.

  • The dolphin is an intelligent mammal.

What I'm confused about is why we use "a" in one sentence, and "the" in the other...? Can someone please clearly explain what causes there to be a difference in the usage of these two articles? I know there are several rules about when to use "a/an" and "the," but I'm interested only in the specific usage in these two sentences. Thank you.

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The definite article is common with biological species used as the subject of a sentence: The cheetah is a fast animal. (= All cheetas are fast animals.) But: I saw a cheetah yesterday. Also: The rose is a beautiful flower.

A doctor isn't a species.

CB

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Hmm, this is not the explanation I've received (though the explanation received remains unclear). I've seen the following rule (for this particular case):

1. We use "the" (with singular countable nouns) to refer to ALL items in a group - i.e. to make a generalized statement about the given group.

2. We use "a/an" (with singular countable nouns) to refer to ANY item within a given group.

But I'm confused because both statements seem to be saying the SAME thing...

Shay SinghBut I'm confused because both statements seem to be saying the SAME thing.

Talking about all members of a group using ALL versus talking about them using ANY does not explain your two sentences. These are two ways of thinking about all members of the group. ALL takes them as a group; ANY takes them EACH in turn individually. But that is a subtle distinction that doesn't help. In effect, they are the same, as you say.

The dolphin is an intelligent animal amounts to
For all X, if X is a dolphin, then X is an intelligent animal.

A doctor has the responsibility of helping the elderly amounts to
For all X, if X is a doctor, then X has the responsibility of helping the elderly.

In fact, groups of animals are sometimes referred to with "the" and a singular noun, and groups of people are sometimes referred to with "a" (or "an").


However, those are fine points. More often, when you use English as it is used in everyday life, you'll find that the plural is used for both cases of generic reference. We usually prefer the forms below.

Dolphins are intelligent animals.
Doctors have the responsibility of helping the elderly.


In both cases, "the" with a singular also has the usual meaning of indicating one particular member of the group.

The dolphin is playing with a hoop while the seal is playing with a ball.
The doctor is operating on a patient while the nurse is monitoring vital signs.

CJ

Ok, I see CJ and CoolBreeze, thank you for clearing that up. So I'll take it as one of the many rules in the use of articles that when talking about groups of animals, we typically use "the," and when discussing groups of people, we typically use "a/an." I appreciate all the help and quick responses!! 🤗🤗

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