5

Which usage is correct/preferred?

1‌. How many words does the average person hear a day?

2‌. How many words does an average person hear a day?

  • In US English, you would be asking about 'the average Joe' for the typical American (male). – Alan Carmack Apr 13 '16 at 20:41
6

You might expect only the indefinite article (a, an) to be used in such contexts, because we know that in principle there are many individuals who could fit the description average, ordinary, typical person.

We're only talking about a randomly-selected one of those many possibilities, so it seems logical to suppose we should refer to that as a [possibility]. But idiomatically, native speakers often envisage a single "hypothetical, archetypal" choice fitting the description, which we identify as the typical example.

Notice that if you've already identified who you're talking about, it suddenly becomes somewhat "awkward" to use the definite article...

John is an average [person, guy, man, chap, etc.] (600 hits in Google Books)
?John is the average [person, etc.] (1 hit, but see below)

Note that the only instance of the definite article above is in a context where "John" himself is just a hypothetical person. The writer just selected a/the typical name John to refer to a/the average citizen.


It may also be instructive to consider use of the BrE term man on the Clapham omnibus - a hypothetical reasonable person, used by the courts in English law where it is necessary to decide whether a party has acted in the way that a reasonable person should.

We don't normally use this term to describe any actual person - usually we're just "conjuring up" such a person for the purposes of illustrating some statement we're making about what he would think or do (if he actually existed, which strictly speaking he doesn't). The usage figures reflect the fact that he's only a single hypothetical individual...

the man on the Clapham omnibus (17,700 hits)
a man on the Clapham omnibus (4 hits)


In short, if you're "constructing/evoking" a completely hypothetical individual, it's really a matter of stylistic choice whether you refer to him as a or the average [whatever]. But if you're saying that some specific individual is in fact an example who fits that description, you'd nearly always use the indefinite article.

  • Thank you so much for such an informative and detailed answer. ♥ – user1555 Jun 28 '13 at 14:54
  • Ah! - that's so sweet! How do you manage to make a heart symbol appear in a comment? – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jun 28 '13 at 15:02
  • I don't think that it's so awkward to say that John is the average person, but I agree that using the indefinite article seems better. – Daniel Jun 28 '13 at 15:16
  • @Daniel: I did temper it by saying somewhat awkward. Obviously native speakers can and do override that awkwardness sometimes. But Google Books has only 4 instances of he is the average person, compared to 1350 for he is an average person. If we're teaching "normal" usage to learners, I think we can forget about "credible, but rarely used" variants like that. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jun 28 '13 at 15:24
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers I just hold down the Alt key and press the number 3 on the number pad. :) – user1555 Jun 28 '13 at 15:55
0

"The well-dressed man wears Dolce Gabbana" is more assertive than "A well-dressed man wears Dolce Gabbana." This is why the definite article is often seen in advertising.

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