QUESTION: I thought “the” made a noun specific or unique. Why is it correct to say the blue whale is an endangered species? Shouldn’t we say blue whales or a blue whale?
ANSWER: Grammar certainly becomes confusing when the number of choices increases. I think it’s important to stress that the rules which teachers and textbooks present are meant to be taken as guidelines because they reflect patterns. There will always be exceptions to the so-called rules. It’s best to say most of the time indefinite articles are for general references and definite articles are for specific references. Students will learn that [the + singular noun] can refer to a whole group, and not one specific member. Ann Salzman of the University of Illinois confirmed my hunch that this structure is more formal than [zero article + plural noun], which also is used to make a general reference.
- The blue whale is an endangered species. (more typical of formal, written language)
- Blues whales are considered endangered. (more standard)
Jay Maurer offers additional observations of some common patterns. He explains that [the + singular noun] can be used for making general references to inventions and musical instruments, as in the bicycle or the piano. [The + plural noun] can be used in a generic sense when using names of peoples or species, for example, the Native Americans or the chimpanzees.
The next question that comes to my mind is how best to teach all these exceptions and alternatives? My strategy for the series I’m creating on YouTube is to start with a basic overview of English articles and their most common uses. My introduction is a two-part lesson. The subsequent ones with patterns that apply to smaller groups of nouns should be shorter, allowing time for learners to absorb the new information and integrate with their present understanding. I don’t think the goal will be to cover every possible exception. I want to teach the most common patterns and highlight key exceptions in contexts that will be memorable. Suggestions are welcome!
 Salzmann, Ann. Articles in English. Intensive English Institute of the University of Illinois. http://www.iei.uiuc.edu/structure/structure1/grammar_articles.html
 Mauer, Jay. Focus on Grammar: An integrated skills approach. Pearson Longman, 2006.