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Or, must it be "Every man is mortal"? How about "Tree is mortal"?

In another sense, "A detailed description of a man", "A detailed description of man" or "A detailed description of Man"?

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Like in life, a negative vote is easier than a helping comment. –  phaedrus May 22 '11 at 13:00
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I'm not the one who downvoted, but I suppose it was because your question is rather unclear... Are you asking whether you can use "Man" as a mass noun? Or about the article usage? Or about the capitalisation of "Man" as a mass noun? –  Alenanno May 22 '11 at 13:02
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I downvoted it, because I always downvote these sort of grammar questions when (a) the grammar in question is correct; and (b) they don't specify why they suspect it might be incorrect. –  Marcin May 22 '11 at 13:28
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@Marcin: (a) I believe that they don't know it's correct when they ask and (b) better to leave a comment once to let all users know that a question need more context to be answered, rather than always downvoting. –  user8568 May 22 '11 at 13:41
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@Boob: Why would anyone assume that a published source is incorrect if they don't have a particular reason for believing it to be incorrect? –  Marcin May 22 '11 at 13:45
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4 Answers

Man is a mass noun, therefore it cannot be preceded by an indefinite article. Both man and Man are correct.

Therefore,

Man is mortal.

Is correct.

Beware that if you say:

Every man is mortal.

You are still targeting all humanity, but in that case, the word man has its usual meaning of a person, because you are targeting every man = every person. Therefore, you cannot write this:

Every Man is mortal. (= wrong)

Going on.

A detailed description of a man.

This sentence is grammatically correct, but it is a bit awkward. The indefinite article says that you are giving a description of a man in general, a person, a human being, but you are also trying to give a detailed description. Therefore, such a sentence would only work in biology, when giving a description about human body, for example.

On the other hand:

A detailed description of the man.

Sounds a lot better and implies that you are going to describe a concrete person in detail.

Last option you presented,

A detailed description of man.
A detailed description of Man.

Both are correct and for the missing article, they imply that you are going to describe whole humanity, which again, in connection with detailed sounds a bit awkward, because it's very difficult to say what is a detailed description of all humans, but the sentences are grammatically correct.

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Thanks for the detailed answer. Is it right to say that Man is a mass noun, but Tree is not? In general, how to decide if something can be a mass noun? –  phaedrus May 22 '11 at 22:49
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I don't know whether there is any such rule - the general advice for non-native speakers is to study and internalize lists. Here's a pretty good tutorial. –  MT_Head May 23 '11 at 3:54
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I cannot think of another word that behaves like "Man" in this respect. –  Colin Fine May 23 '11 at 13:26
    
@Colin: Death would be an example. –  Dancrumb Jun 3 '11 at 16:37
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"Man" can be used as a mass noun, and so it is here.

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Several people have said that Man in this context is used as a mass noun, but I disagree. Looking at the wikipedia page on mass nouns, the characteristics of mass nouns include:

  • They can be quantified by some and much:

    some water; much water

    some furniture; much furniture

    some trouble; much trouble

    But this does not apply to Man, because you cannot say

    *some Man; *much Man

  • They have cumulative reference. That means, very roughly, that if you add or take away a portion of what the noun refers to, then you still have something that you can still use the same noun for: if I take water, and add water to it, then I still have water, whereas if I took a pencil and added a pencil to it, I would no longer have a pencil but pencils:

    • adding water to water gives water

    • adding furniture to furniture leaves furniture (and a messy house)

    • adding trouble to trouble leaves trouble (and a stressful life)

    and similarly one can apply restrictions and end up with the same noun:

    • the water that is in this cup is water

    • the furniture that is in my kitchen is furniture

    • the trouble that I caused by myself is trouble

    This does not apply to Man, because it always refers to the entire of mankind - if one were to say

    The man that lives in Europe is Man

    then (a) the first man is used differently (using the definite article to refer to a typical instance), and (b) the sentence is false, because the final Man is understood to refer to to mankind as a whole.

So... if it's not a mass noun, then what is it? I have to confess I'm not 100% positive of this (and don't have easy access to CGEL to check), but I would say that this a usage similar to using a definite singular to refer to an entire class (The blue whale can grow to up to 30m in length), but turning the noun into a proper noun due to familiarity. This latter explains why, in contrast to that usage, there is no need for a definite article, and also the the common practice of capitalising the first letter. (I guess you could say it is an example of synecdoche.)

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Has anyone considered that 'Man' might refer to the species? " The Diplodocus died out; the mammoth [or mammoths] died out; even Man is mortal." Of course this wouldn't be what the reader first thought of, but it is a possibility, and I can't immediately see how to differentiate from the normal meaning, namely One of the characteristics of Man is bipedality; another is mortality.

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