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At the same time, however, Walser’s narrators—especially his schoolboys, and there is something of the schoolboy in all of his narrators—are possessed by a levity that borders on giddiness.

(Source).

Why is the used here instead of a? It sounds like its talking about a general schoolboy.

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It would be perfectly correct to use the indefinite article (“a”) here, but the author (Ben Lerner) has chosen not to, instead employing the definite article (“the”).

It's a very fine distinction, and the meaning is essentially the same in either case, but Lerner means to invoke the archetypal schoolboy.

With this choice, Lerner is suggesting an ideal schoolboy who may not actually exist in a single bodily form, but is nonetheless the singular epitome of everything it is to be a schoolboy.

It's that schoolboy that there's something of here. All together, it means that some of Walser's narrators are schoolboys who can be counted and named, and others borrow somewhat from the qualities usually attributed to schoolboys.

As J.R. points out, it means “somewhat schoolboyish” either way you write it. As J.M.L. points out, the definite article structure is an established turn of phrase.

Either phrasing requires agreement among those communicating about the qualities of whichever archetype is invoked. In some cases, this is very simple (“zealot” or “daredevil”, for example), because the descriptor is based on the characteristics in question. In other cases (like “gypsy” or “schoolboy”), what exactly constitutes the character of “the schoolboy” that there's “something of” in whomever else might be a little less certain, but, as always, context should provide sufficient clues.

Long story short (too late), if you're going to use the “something of the [archetype] in [actual person]” format, you're best sticking to the definite article form as it a) is an established turn of phrase and b) will make it clear that it's the spirit of the archetype inhabiting your subject, and nobody's physical parts are in anyone else's.

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    There seems to be a bit of a debate going on here, but I'm having trouble seeing a wide gulf between these two answers. JML maintains that the phrase means, "Possessing a measure of the defining characteristics of some other entity" while TJY says that the author "means to invoke the archetypal schoolboy." At least in my mind, those two theories seem to overlap some, particularly if archetypal is taken to mean very typical (as opposed to meaning "an ideal"). I think this answer isn't too far off – until the last paragraph. – J.R. Sep 7 '13 at 23:55
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    @JohnM.Landsberg Hopefully my edits will make it clearer where I was going with that. I don't think we actually disagree as much as you seem to think we do. Either way, maybe we can come together and laugh about the fact that a non-answer of an answer was accepted over either of ours. – Tyler James Young Sep 8 '13 at 7:58
  • For the record: I think this answer is much improved, now that the aforementioned "last paragraph" has been edited and expounded upon. – J.R. Sep 8 '13 at 10:44
  • Tyler, you're right, and when I have a bit more time, I'm going to respond more cogently. – John M. Landsberg Sep 8 '13 at 19:09
  • Tyler, note something I just discovered in my comment below. And I'll add it to my answer. – John M. Landsberg Sep 10 '13 at 3:55
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Your interpretation that it sounds as if the phrase is talking about "a general schoolboy" is actually fairly accurate. "Something of the schoolboy" is a specific form of the general phrase that can be used with any noun, thus: "something of the X." For "X" you can subsitute any noun. "There is something of the devil in that boy" would be just one example.

This is a very well known phrase that means: Possessing a measure of the defining characteristics of some other entity. If I say there is something of "the jungle" in that city, it means there are characteristics of that city which would remind you of the jungle.

Here's an example to make it a little more clear. Let's say you are talking to a person who is a secretary, and not known to do anything out of the ordinary. You say to that person, "What are you going to do this weekend?" And that person says, "I think I'm going to go skydiving this weekend." You smile and say, "There's something of the daredevil in you after all." It means "you are slightly daring after all," or "even though you are a usually boring secretary, it turns out you do have a bit of daring in you."

Something (a portion, part, or characteristic) of the daredevil (the type of person who is daring) is what this phrase indicates. "You have something of the daredevil in you" equates to "you are slightly daring." "You have something of the schoolboy in you" equates to "you are slightly schoolboyish."

So there you have it in a nutshell. "Something of A schoolboy" is not the way it is usually said. The only way I can see "something of a schoolboy" being used, in fact, would be if a person were acting completely like a schoolboy, when that person was not actually a schoolboy, and then you might comment, "He's something of a schoolboy, isn't he?"

I'm tacking on an edit now because a light bulb has just gone off above my head. A syntax variation has recommended itself to me as being influential in whether "a" or "the" works better. I find myself more comfortable with "the" when the phrase continues, thus: "something of the beast in the man." But when the thought is completed without the need of the continuation of the phrase, "a" works well, thus: "the man is something of a beast." Now, admittedly, I think there is a subtle distinction between the meanings of these two locutions; the first would be "he's a man but he does have some beastly characteristics," and the second would be "he's really quite beastly (more so than I think he should be)." But at least I think these allow for the possible use of both "a" and "the."

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    That is precisely correct. And now if you read the passage carefully with that interpretation in mind, you can see how it makes perfect sense, which is what I've been saying all along. – John M. Landsberg Sep 7 '13 at 15:52
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    I like this answer quite a bit, except maybe for a bit of the last part: "Something of A schoolboy" is simply not the way you say it. It is simply not how that particular meaningful phrase is constructed. What about: "There was something of an imp in the artist, a playfulness that made him a good companion," or, "I can't tell if she's unbearably shy, uncomfortable as hell, or something of a tease" – aren't those pretty much the same construct, only with the indefinite article? I'm having trouble seeing a huge diff. between "something of the/a schoolboy" – I'd read both as "schoolboyish". – J.R. Sep 8 '13 at 0:15
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    I fail to understand why you think telling people something isn't debatable is a persuasive argument. WHY DO YOU THINK ALL CAPS IS THE WAY TO MAKE A POINT? Your answer is not the place to argue with other answers. Your answer should stand on its own. Personally I found your writing confusing, and just represented your personal opinion. That's because you never referred to a rule of grammar, any sources, ... – dcaswell Sep 8 '13 at 8:24
  • @user814064 Good point. Took the caps out. Made some other edits, too. – John M. Landsberg Sep 10 '13 at 3:50
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    @JohnM.Landsberg - The examples I gave – "something of a tease" and "something of an imp" – both came from published books. For whatever reason, the authors chose to use "a/an" instead of "the". As for my thoughts about the matter, I've seen this over and over again on ELL: "Why this article, and not a different article?" and usually my answer is, "Because sometimes it doesn't really matter – either one works just fine." I've quipped before, "Rule #1: Never overthink an article; Rule #2: Never overthink the article." :^) – J.R. Sep 10 '13 at 9:12
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Perhaps a few other examples would be helpful: "playing the fool" (acting like a fool), "playing the angel" (acting as if one is entirely without blame in a situation), "being the bad guy" (slightly slangy term meaning roughly "taking all the blame").

There are many more examples whose meaning is a bit more of a departure from the original, to the point that substituting the indefinite article would not generally make sense. For example, "run the table" (in billiards, pocketing all the balls, used figuratively to mean making one's way through a series of challenges without a mistake ("The Miami Dolphins are the only NFL team to run the table, going 17-0 back in 1972."). Also, "go the distance", a boxing term meaning to make it through all the rounds without being knocked out, used to mean sticking with something difficult to the end. Finally, "push the envelope" is a mathematical and engineering term that is now in more general use, meaning pushing past perceived limits in an endeavor ("Committing to getting the project done in two weeks is pushing the envelope.").

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    Although some of these example are conceptually connected, they are a bit tangential to the meaning of the complete phrase in question, and offering them without much explanation leaves one scratching one's head, I would dare say. Subsequently meandering off into unrelated territory in your second paragraph becomes altogether quite confusing. – John M. Landsberg Sep 7 '13 at 19:24
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    -1 This answer is confusing for me and I don't see the relevance of billiards, American football, and boxing has to do with the special use of the definite article. Perhaps you need to format your answer and consider how helpful your examples are to the OP. In fact, you haven't explained anything, have you? – Mari-Lou A Sep 8 '13 at 12:21
  • @John: Perhaps I should have said that this use has become highly idiomatic in many cases. The second paragraph provides some examples of that. In my experience with learning other languages, I've found that it's helpful to tie idiomatic phrases back to their origins when learning them. For example "black eye" in French is "oeil au beurre noir", literally "eye of black butter". Knowing what black butter is helps explain why they use the term, and also is the reason I still remember it. – BobRodes Sep 9 '13 at 17:14
  • @Mari-Lou: Would you mind explaining what you believe an ill-mannered and snippy tone accomplishes? I don't see the pedagogical value, but I could be missing something. – BobRodes Sep 9 '13 at 17:20
  • @BobRodes I spoke plainly and fairly. Your answer is, I'm afraid, confusing. Tell me what the OP could learn about the special use of the article by knowing the Miami Dolphins are the only NFL team to run the table? To "run the table", (for me a completely unfamiliar expression) sounds almost technical; and why couldn't it be "to run a table"? I imagine it can't because it is a fixed phrase, an idiomatic type of expression; as is "to play the fool", as is "pushing the envelope" you don't "push an envelope". cont'd. – Mari-Lou A Sep 9 '13 at 20:24
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"A schoolboy" is a somewhat weak phrase that would refer to a "random" schoolboy.

"The schoolboy" is a stronger expression with the connotations of the "one and only" schoolboy.

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