Let's imagine we are talking about readers in general. Some like "intellectual" books, some like detective novels:

The intellectual perusing “Foucault's Pendulum” and the simpleton absorbed in a pulp detective novel – both would be surprised to know how similar they are.

Would the use of the be similar in meaning to the use of a:

An intellectual perusing “Foucault's Pendulum” and a simpleton absorbed in a pulp detective novel – both would be surprised to know how similar they are.

We are not talking about any specific persons.

Would the version with a be more 'harsh' towards these readers, and the version with the more 'lenient'? The matter is, the text as a whole says that a reader's motives are often selfish, that he often seeks to see his own reflection in the work of fiction, and hence intellectuals and the simple folk are kind of on the same footing.

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    Similar and dissimilar. I'd say that The reflects the speaker's confidence in the assumption that it will be intellectual who is reading Foucault and the amateur who is reading the pulp novel. The makes the "typecasting" explicit.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 12:38
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    Beyond referring to them as predictable types, there is nothing in the choice of article The which expresses any sort of harshness or leniency towards the two; there's no implication of "selfishness" . BTW, intellectual and amateur are not opposites in the way that professional and amateur are. There are amateur intellectuals and intellectual amateurs. :)
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 12:50
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    I don't think the use of the reflects confidence in an assumption; I think it's more of a semantic clarification, which some have called the definite generic. We're not just talking about any intellectual, we're talking about the intellectual as a type who is reading "Foucault's Pendulum". The "related posts" sidebar to this question actually include some pretty good discussions of this topic.
    – stangdon
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 17:03
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    @TRomano - No, I actually do, but I think it's only because the author is referring to archetypes; I wouldn't want a reader to think, "Oh, 'the dog likes to eat garbage' is a more confident assertion than 'a dog likes to eat garbage'."
    – stangdon
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 14:47
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    @standgon: I'll try to clarify. The phrases "an intellectual perusing" vs "the intellectual perusing" and "a simpleton absorbed in" vs "the simpleton absorbed in" are all examples of stereotyping (to call them archetypes is to hit outside the bullseye). The definite article makes the stereotyping explicit whereas the indefinite leaves it implicit; "the intellectual" refers to a type whereas "an intellectual" refers only to an exemplar. A speaker who states something explicitly is a tad more confident in the validity of the assertion than a speaker who leaves it up to inference.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 11:07

1 Answer 1


The intellectual refers to the one and only prototype of the class intellectual and an intellectual refers to any member of the class intellectual.

You can single out and point to the intellectual because there is only one prototype in existence. When we point to an object, we can say this or that. Old English got along fine without a definite article, using the word for that (in its many inflections) as a marker of definiteness. (See Page 86 of a biography of the English language.)

You cannot do the same exact thing regarding an intellectual because he could be one/any of many. Sure you could point to an intellectual but there are others around that you could also point to and call an intellectual.

If it helps, you can think of an intellectual as your average intellectual or any old intellectual. See Just give me one. I don't care which [one] at any old thing.

If it helps, both one and any are extremely close in etymology: any meaning one-y. See the Old English and, more to the point, proto-German words at those links.

In addition, according to many scholars, one used to be pronounced without the initial w- sound, so it sounded quite similar to unstressed an, which was the initial form of the indefinite article (later, folks dropped the n before consonants). This pronunciation, without initial w-, is retained in only.

Much of what I am writing here can apply to non-generic usages of the and a.

This question seems to follow your previous “Only the masochist would choose to study Russian” or “Only a masochist would choose to study Russian”?. Yet as your average native speaker, I don't know why you would get this idea that you ask about here. Perhaps you could explain why you think this idea of yours might be true? What about three types of generic noun phrases (or two in this case) prompts this kind of idea?

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    The pronunciation bit is new to me. But I've read it in several academic contexts. And, for instance, several puns in Shakespeare do not work if "one" is pronounced with initial w- sound. Plus, we (still) have the w-less pronunciation of "only" meaning "one-ly." But I have not read why the pronunciation of one would have changed to that of present-day English (PdE).
    – GoDucks
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 5:34
  • Thank you for the historical bit! I only wondered whether the two versions are completely interchangeable (to me, they seem interchangeable), and added a bit of musing to expand the question. Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 12:25
  • Since English has a definite article today, apparently Old English didn't "g[e]t along fine without a definite article".
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 13:28
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    @TRomano Old English did get along fine without one. Just like classical Latin did. Both areas where the languages were spoken were subject to conquest and upheaval, and the languages changed incredibly so as to become a different language (Middle English) or languages (Romance languages). The successors of both OE and Latin developed articles.
    – GoDucks
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 15:06

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