I can't fully understand the following sentence:

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it.

-Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement Address-

What bothers me is the bolded part. I know that Jobs meant "Getting fired from Apple was a very unpleasant experience to me, but it turned out to be a great oppertunity to start something new." But how should I understand the grammatical structure of this sentence?

I came up with two possible explanations:

  1. It was awful tasting medicine = Tasting medicine was awful. (expletive it)

If I understand it this way, this sentence has nothing to do (at least grammatically) with the preceding sentence. In addition to that, I don't think that someone would go around "tasting medicine". You take medicines, not taste.

  1. It was awful-tasting medicine, with "it" representing the preceding sentence.

This leaves me with one big question: shouldn't you use "an"? Like,

"It was an awful tasting medicine, ..."

Which explanation is more convincing? Or can someone give me an alternative interpretation of this sentence? Thank you.

  • There is an aphorism in English: to take one's medicine. It means to accept the consequences of one's actions without complaint. Jobs was probably referring to this, with the added inference that the "medicine" turned out to be good for him, and for the company. (Note that medicine is used in the aphorism as a mass uncountable noun, obviating the need for an article.) Sep 16, 2016 at 4:57

1 Answer 1


Definitely option two. If the original didn't hyphenate the compound it should have. We've relaxed immensely on what compounds you need to hyphenate, but when it's this easy to parse incorrectly it still should have the hyphen.

To get the right indefinite article you need to ask: Is it countable? If it is, it gets a/an. But if it isn't countable—which medicine isn't, you wouldn't say you took "five medicine"—you have a choice of using "some" or not using an article at at all.

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