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Since quintessential means "representing the perfect example of a class" is it correct to use "the quintessential example" as in this sentence:

"Electrons are the quintessential example of (apparently)-elementary particles."

or is it better to write:

"Electrons are quintessential (apparently)-elementary particles."

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2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I would tend to think the word quintessential would not apply in this case as 'elementary particles' are a well-defined, factual and concrete concept.

When a class has certain, and usually multiple, subjective traits associated with it, then the best exemplar of those traits would be the quintessential member of that class.

If the class does not have a variable 'essence' then quintessential will not apply. Membership in the 'elementary particle' class is binary - either something is a member of the class or not. There is nothing variable about the essence of being an elementary particle.

You can say that the Higgs boson is the quintessential elusive particle that keeps modern physics interesting. Note that the words 'elusive', 'modern' and 'interesting' have added a subjective gradualism for which the search for the Higgs boson is the perfect exemplar.

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Several dictionaries (eg, Collins, MacMillan, Cambridge) essentially agree with the definition of quintessential mentioned in the question. Thus quintessential example is effectively equal to most exemplary example, which from a pedantic point of view is a bit redundant. However, aside from those pedants who recoil in horror from quintessential example as a monstrosity, most English speakers will have no trouble understanding what is meant.

As suggested in akberc's answer, it is slightly perverse to refer to the electron as the quintessential apparently-elementary particle, when most of the 31 elementary particles are representative only of themselves, rather than being representative of elementary particles in general. But that is a semantic-content issue, rather than an English-language question. From a language point of view, your alternative wording is better than the first. However, the parentheses around apparently are a noisome distraction and should be dropped. Or in some other sentence explain that wherever you write elementary you actually mean apparently-elementary, or elementary according to theory X, etc.

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I agree with you, about the "apparently-elementary" but it is not my writing, it is from this blog…. I am actually writing a comment about that exact point, that it is one of Aristotle's 13 sophistries, the Accent sophistry – Zeynel Feb 24 '13 at 0:49
Thank you. Your answer made me think. Perhaps the writer is forced to use 'example' with 'quintessential' and had the usage been more appropriate, it would not require 'example' with it. – user32135 Feb 24 '13 at 1:01
There's also something quite jarring about using a word originally meaning "a fifth element that exists along with the four elements" and anything held to be elementary by modern physics. – Jon Hanna Feb 24 '13 at 1:42
I have no problem with electrons being identified as the quintessential elementary particle (out of the 31 that could have been chosen). NOAD defines the word as representing the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class (emphasis mine). I think electrons could be considered the most "typical" elementary particles; if we surveyed 100 people on the street, and asked: "Name an elementary particle," I'd guess that more than half – assuming they understood the question – would reply with the electron. Moreover, electrons seem to be put to good use more than quarks. – J.R. Feb 24 '13 at 8:57

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