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Considering the sentence Nearly anything can be a weapon in a martial artist’s hands., the indefinite article a indiciates that this can be any martial artist out of all in the world.

Next, consider The wise warrior stops a ranged attack before it nears him. Here, the definite article the is used, but still, I am quite certain that the sentence talks about any "wise warrior", or that one would even qualify as a "wise warrior" by performing the named action (among others, probably).

Is this a correct usage of the, indicating one out of a group of many? What is this usage called properly?

Finally, consider Through judicious placement of wounds, the marksman ensures that his enemy cannot escape him.
I am wondering whether this could be the same kind of use for the definite article as in the second example, or whether to a native speaker this sentence indicates a specific individiual (that is a "marksman") that would be clear from context.

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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

This is a specialised use of "the", which designates a typical or even stereotypical member of the set, not any particular member.

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This special use of the about a type of person, indicates that this kind of behaviour linked to that person is something that is important for that kind of person, and is probably the one thing that defines this sort of person.

Take your second example:

The wise warrior stops a ranged attack before it nears him.

This means that a warrior is not wise if he doesn't do this. It is the most important distinction that separates a wise warrior from any other not-so-wise warrior.

The other example:

Through judicious placement of wounds, the marksman ensures that his enemy cannot escape him.

means that this way of eliminating an enemy is the most important thing that defines a marksman.

As for your first example:

Nearly anything can be a weapon in a martial artist’s hands.

This is not really the core of what defines a martial artist, even it is something any good martial artist would be capable of.

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The definite article can be used, as in your examples, for what is known as ‘generic reference’, that is, a reference to a whole class of things rather than just one or more instances. However, the indefinite article, and the plural of the noun with no article, can also be used to the same effect. So your examples could, with the same meaning, be written as:

1a. A wise warrior stops a ranged attack before it nears him.

1b. Wise warriors stop a ranged attack before it nears them.

2a. Through judicious placement of wounds, a marksman ensures that his enemy cannot escape him.

2b.Through judicious placement of wounds, marksmen ensure that their enemy cannot escape them.

Not sure what 'a ranged attack' is, by the way.

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It is meant to describe an attack over range (e.g. a gunshot), as opposed to an attack in mêlée. Given the source of the examples, it is probably a technical term. –  Urs Reupke Jun 20 '12 at 7:25
    
@UrsReupke: Thank you. –  Barrie England Jun 20 '12 at 7:31
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