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(1) What do we mean by "when we talk about one of many" concerning the indefinite article a or an? (2) And when we talk about a general idea, are all of these right? A cat is a nice animal. Cats are nice animals. The cat is a nice animal.

Sender eslam
Position Student

(1) When you talk about one of many, you know that many things of that type exist but you are only talking about one of them and you don’t care (or are not saying) which one. Using a/an is like saying “any one of those things” or “I don’t care which one of those things.”

I want a book from the shelf. You know there are many books on the shelf but you are not saying which one you want. Any book will do. So you are talking about one book of many books.
“We have apples and oranges in the fridge. Which do you want?”
“I want an apple.”
You don’t care which apple of that group of apples. Any of them will do. You are talking about one of the group of apples.
I want to eat an apple.
You can say this if you are hungry for an apple, whether you know that there are any apples in the house or not. You know that there are apples somewhere (in the room, in the fridge, in the world) and you don’t care which one you have. You are talking about one of the apples that exist (in the room, in the fridge, in the world).
In contrast, using the is like saying to the listener “you know which one I mean.”
“Have you ever read Pride and Prejudice?”
“No, but I want to get the book.”
Here you are referring to the book that was just mentioned (Pride and Prejudice). 
“We have one apple and one orange. Which do you want?”
“I want the apple.”
There is only one apple, so you and the listener know which one you’re talking about.
(2) When you are talking about a general idea, the grammar is a bit more complicated. You can often use a/an to mean that you are looking at one individual as an example of a whole group or category. Or you can use the with a singular noun to talk about the group or category as a whole. Or you can use a plural noun and zero article.
However, the first choice (a/an) has some semantic restrictions, and for that reason the Grammar Reviews in Sec 1 and Sec 2 say to use the when talking about a type of animal, even though this is often more formal.
The restriction — which is beyond the syllabus and which your students don’t need to know — is that you cannot use a/an and a singular when you mean the whole category or group.
A walrus is nearly extinct. (Wrong. A single animal cannot be extinct. Only a species can.)
The grammar has been simplified in the textbook. Students should use the and the singular, even though it is often more formal, so that they don’t have to be burdened with semantic restrictions.
So, while all of these are grammatical in this case, students should avoid using the first form.
A cat is a nice animal.
Cats are nice animals.
The cat is a nice animal.
See also here.


ed. 28/11/12



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