From English is not Normal, by John McWhorter:

If someone were told he had a year to get as good at either Russian or Hebrew as possible, and would lose a fingernail for every mistake he made during a three-minute test of his competence, only the masochist would choose Russian – unless he already happened to speak a language related to it.

Could we substitute "a" for "the" here? Both "the masochist" and "a masochist" are generic noun phrases.

If someone were told he had a year to get as good at either Russian or Hebrew as possible, and would lose a fingernail for every mistake he made during a three-minute test of his competence, only a masochist would choose Russian – unless he already happened to speak a language related to it.

Would this be okay? If not, why?

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    And only the sadist would dream up such a test. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 14 '15 at 12:34

I'm another native speaker who can attest that a masochist is fine here.

Since the sentence is not taking about any particular masochist, then I agree with you that it is taking about a generic masochist. So I have to turn to John Lawler's post Re: A question about the generic use of..., which succinctly explains the difference in generic noun phrases when you use a and the. I assume you've read this page, probably several times.

The masochist is the definite generic, which refers to

the Prototype of a species, roughly the image we associate with tiger...


a masochist

refers to the Definition of a species, that is, those properties that are absolutely necessary for anything to be a member. It doesn't work as the subject of any predicate that isn't definitional. But with a definitional property, it's certainly true for any member.

Since the sentence would then assert what any masochist would do, then yes, using the indefinite generic is fine here. At least that's how I interpret my intuitive and unflinching assurance that a masochist is fine here.

By the way, I tried to create a tag generic noun phrase but it got shot down without any reason given. Since not even English speakers are taught what they are, I think it's an important and germane topic for this site. Maybe someone should do a metapost about it but I feel like I did my part and really don't want to repeat my attempt.

Edit: okay, thanks for creating the tag.

  • Thank you! I had created the tag generic noun phrases several days ago and I've just attached it to this question. I'm interested whether in your view a masochist would sound a bit more condescending, as Ricky says. – CowperKettle Dec 15 '15 at 12:11
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    Since both the masochist and a masochist refer to generic masochistics and not to any actual person in heaven and earth, I don't think the idea of "condescension" has any part of this usage. If we call an actual person a masochist that could be condescending. But if we call an actual person the masochist we are now saying that he or she is the prototypical masochist. Here comes John Smith. Behold the masochist. – user20792 Dec 15 '15 at 12:21
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    But Ricky's answers and comments often contain a lot of flippant or extraneous information that can confuse the learner. So he's not the prototypical ELL Answerer, and his remarks very often confuse learners. And I am pretty sure John McWhorter knows his stuff. I've listened to two or three lecture series by McWhorter and I've never found him offer any linguistic info that is off the mark. Not all linguists agree on everything though. Maybe @Ricky will use his more winding writings back at ELL, once his suspension from that site expires. – user20792 Dec 15 '15 at 12:27
  • Sorry, I forgot to ask -- do you think that the and a serve equally well here? Would you personally pick a over the? I understand that the is not erroneous in any case. – CowperKettle Dec 16 '15 at 13:12
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    @CopperKettle See my earlier comment. There is not a "better" usage; it depends what you want to get across. The refers to the prototypical masochist. He is unique, because there can be only one prototype. A refers to any masochist. Referring to the prototypical masochist works very well. – user27747 Dec 18 '15 at 0:37

"The masochist" and "a masochist" mean two different things in this context.

A masochist is simply a person who happens to be a masochist.

The masochist is a type, not a person.

"Is that your dog?"
"What kind of dog is he?"
"He's a German Shepherd."


"They tell me you specialize in dogs."
"That's true."
"The Lab, the Yorkie, and the German Shepherd."

That, in a nutshell, is it.

  • So we could use freely either a or the in the sentence by McWhorter? – CowperKettle Dec 14 '15 at 10:16
  • @CopperKettle: Yes, but the former would sound more condescending. – Ricky Dec 14 '15 at 10:29
  • +1 for the point about "the masochist is a type" and the succinct canine example. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 14 '15 at 12:36
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    "more condescending" - because it would be kind of "describing" a particular person, and "the" would be pointing more at a blurred abstract image, a type. I see. – CowperKettle Dec 14 '15 at 13:58
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    Please use the answer box to post answers, not off-topic rambles and diatribes that don't even attempt to answer the question. – snailplane Dec 15 '15 at 11:01

In your example, a can be substituted for the with no loss in understanding, however there is a slightly different meaning between the two.

Both clearly refer to someone who enjoys having pain inflicted upon them. A masochist refers to that type of person in a general sense. They may be more or less a masochist. The implies a higher degree or more extreme level. Consider :

Blue is a color in the rainbow.
Blue is the colour of choice.

The first means: blue is one of several colors in a rainbow.
The second sentence means: blue is the top chosen colour.

So the author is saying that if you want to be a top masochist (not to be confused with top/bottom usage) study Russian, since the more extreme masochist will probably have the enjoyable experience of getting their fingernails pulled out...
[NB: if one is a masochist and happened to be very good at learning languages, this exercise would be self-defeating]

Having studied Russian, I can attest that the language, people, and culture are actually quite lovely, and the fingernail treatment does sound more Russian than Hebrew in aesthetic.

  • 3
    It's an interesting answer, but I don't think the works that way. (Unfortunately, explaining how it does work isn't really possible in the space of a comment and would require a competing answer!) – snailplane Dec 14 '15 at 9:35
  • @snailboat: I don't mind. Am curious to find out what the competing answer is. Make with the answer, I mean, do please post the answer. – Ricky Dec 15 '15 at 8:52

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