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There's a question in a forum I frequent, and I'm trying to decide whether "the average" or "an average" is appropriate in its title.

Let's say the question is:

"Why is the average Canadian more polite than the average American?" [see note].

Another member of the forum feels that this is incorrect grammar and wants it to be changed to:

"Why is an average Canadian more polite than an average American?".

I disagree on both counts with him: I don't think the original question was grammatically incorrect, and I don't think the edited version conveys the same question as the original. However, I only have a vague sense of the difference, that "the average Canadian" talks about the average of all people in that society, whereas "an average Canadian" refers to a particular segment of the society, the segment which is nearest to the average (in some measure) of the society.

Is the original title correct, and does the edited version convey the same meaning as the original? What exactly is the difference between "an average" and "the average" in this use case?

[Note: The original question was equally loaded and stereotyping, which is one reason I'm not linking to it here.]

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I agree with you on all counts –  mplungjan Aug 9 '13 at 7:39

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

... the average X... conveys the sense of some abstraction representing a category, and allows you to treat that abstraction as if it were a person. Think of those pictures where many faces are "averaged" to produce some kind of composite, but generalized to non-physical (or not only physical) attributes.

That is, the average Canadian doesn't refer to any specific Canadian, but personifies some combination of traits thought distinctive (in kind or degree) of Canadians in general. For reference see the mythic man on the Clapham omnibus (or here, etc.).

Now, an average Canadian would be any specific Canadian who, being selected, is subsequently judged to be average according to some criteria.

So, the former discusses some abstract set of attributes, only metaphorically personifying them into the average Canadian.

The second chooses a concrete Canadian to stand as the examplar of these attributes.

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This distinction shows up in other places, too. This answer is a great example (and explanation) of the differences between "prototype" and "exemplar" in cognitive psychology. courses.umass.edu/psy315/prototype.html –  lmjohns3 Aug 9 '13 at 17:04

They are both correct, but only "the average" seems to be the most common one. Since there's only one average in this context that talks about the whole nation, it doesn't matter if you prefix it with "the" or "an". But sticking to the more idiomatic one would be a better choice, which is "the average."

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