Few people would hold sports up as a field that generally brings out the best in the English language, even if there are some very eloquent people within the industry. But one phrase that has really irked me over the years is the use of the phrase ‘… a such-and-such …’
I mean phrases
like the following hypothetical example (which I have made up based on the
Cricket World Cup being on at the moment):
‘… Australia needs someone like a Maxwell,
or a Faulkner, or a Watson, to make some quick runs here …’
is hypothetical, but many sports followers have heard something like it before.
Why use the ‘a’? Why not just say ‘Australia needs Maxwell, or Faulkner, or
Watson, to make some quick runs here … ‘ I can think of two main reasons.
Not wanting to single someone out: This explanation seems more likely if
the speaker is an actual sportsperson, given that the speaker may be reluctant
to single out a player on his or her team. Still it’s almost always wrong. Sports
figures: you generally don’t have more than one player with the same name on
the team, and even if you do your comment probably only refers to one person. Show
some ownership of your comments!
Verbal shorthand: What the speaker really means is
people with ‘such-and-such’ general traits; in the example above ‘a’ is being
used as shorthand for ‘powerful, middle-order batsman’. The usual problem with
this though is that, in using the ‘a’ list, the speaker ends up naming all or
almost all of the sportspeople that fit the criteria he or she is attempting to
describe. So, again, why not just specifically name the people?
It irks me –
maybe more than it should, but it does. Similarly I can’t stand it when
sportspeople are referred to in the plural form, such as ‘the Maxwells, the
Faulkners, and the Watsons’. For people who do this, you mean a particular
person or persons: name them!