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I was reading an article here and came across the article "a" before the proper names in this sentence.

Take Benjamin Franklin. He lacked the analytic processing power of a Hamilton and the philosophical depth of a Madison.

Could you explain why indefinite articles are used before the proper nouns here?

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  • 1
    Your question has been answered but now I'm wondering how the author measured the 'analytic processing power ' of two dead people.
    – Thierry
    Sep 3, 2023 at 13:15
  • apaderno's edit to this post seemed like it may have introduced some unintentional changes (such as removing the quotation from the title, and changing the link text to some text I don't understand), so I've attempted to fix the parts that seemed like unintentional changes. I apologize if I accidentally reverted any changes that were intentional. Sep 3, 2023 at 18:23

3 Answers 3

23

Here Hamilton is being used to mean roughly “person of Hamilton’s like.” Thus it’s a count noun and takes the indefinite article. “…power of a person of Hamilton’s like.”

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    Hamilton's like? Now there's a usage I am not familiar with. such as Hamilton or like Hamilton.
    – Lambie
    Sep 3, 2023 at 18:25
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    “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” —William Shakespeare, Hamlet Sep 3, 2023 at 21:35
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    This was last week's usage. Lambie's suggestions are current. Yesterday, one would probably have said: 'person of Hamilton's ilk'.
    – mcalex
    Sep 4, 2023 at 9:05
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    Actually no. Since this is English Language Learners and we're supposed to be helping people rather than confusing them, can we be very clear 'Hamilton' could never be used in place of 'a Hamilton' to mean roughly 'a person of Hamilton’s like' and that the difference is immense? '… the… processing power of Hamilton' demands a specific comparison to Hamilton himself, and none other. By strong contrast '… a Hamilton' demands only a generic comparison with someone broadly like Hamilton. Sep 4, 2023 at 20:11
15

It is to treat the proper noun as a common noun. Grammatically "a Hamiliton" is a common noun, as it doesn't name a specific thing, but is the name for a type of thing, that is "a person who is like (Alexander) Hamilton.

So the quote literally means "He lacked the analytical processing power of a person like Hamilton..."

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  • I don't think common versus proper nouns is important here. In "He bought a Toyota" Toyota isn't a common noun (grammatically or otherwise) it's still a proper noun. Sep 2, 2023 at 14:00
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    I think that's my point. Saying "A Toyota" is to treat the proper noun as a common noun. The classification of "proper" against "common" is mostly an orthographic and semantic difference, rather than an grammatical one. The writing rules are one factor, but the semantic category of proper nouns is not specifically English, it is translingual.
    – James K
    Sep 2, 2023 at 14:55
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    Why does saying "a Toyota" make it common? Why can't it just be a countable proper noun? And if it's common why isn't it lowercase? You seem to be trying to say that proper nouns can't have multiple instances, and I don't think that's the case. Do you have references? Sep 2, 2023 at 14:58
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    Well, what is a proper noun? It is word that attaches to a particular thing. So "England" is a proper noun, there is only one England. But "country" is a common noun, there are many countries. Toyota is a proper noun when it refers to the company or to a person (as in context Toyota-san would be a particular individual). But if you say "I own a Toyota" you are using "Toyota" as equivalent to "car made by Toyota", and that is semantically a common noun. But it has the orthographics of a proper noun due to the origin of the word.
    – James K
    Sep 2, 2023 at 15:03
  • Theres an alternative defintion of proper noun, and that's a word that is written with a capital letter. So if that's your definition, then "I own a Toyota" is a proper noun. But what I don't think exists in English is a gender of nouns, proper v. common. It's not a grammatical category of nouns.
    – James K
    Sep 2, 2023 at 15:05
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Perhaps in you own language there is an idiom that goes something like take a Jones, or take a Smith etc. where the names stand for people of a certain renown, stature, or celebrated accomplishment?

This is the same idea.

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