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“A wrong answer” vs “the wrong answer”

Can I say "you are asking a wrong person"? A quick google search seems to suggest that this is wrong and you should say "you are asking the wrong person", instead.

I can't seem to get it. Why? There should be a lot of wrong persons to ask a specific question, right?

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Great question! This Google Ngram suggests that "a wrong person" might have been correct in 1800, but that the idiom has since become "the wrong person". And because it's changed over time, there probably isn't any logical reason it should be "the" rather than "a". –  Peter Shor Aug 8 '12 at 4:35
"I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?" —Max Bialystock –  Peter Shor Aug 8 '12 at 4:41
Peter, thanks for the link. That chart is amazing. As you and others point out, I guess "(the wrong) person" has become predominant. Now, it makes sense to me. –  knsmr Aug 8 '12 at 20:49
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marked as duplicate by Matt Эллен, MετάEd, waiwai933 Aug 20 '12 at 4:35

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7 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think the distinction is as follows:

"I'm the wrong person to answer that" means that you currently are filling the role of the wrong person. You are conceptually linked to the role of the wrong person, it isn't permanently affixed to you.

Compare that to "I'm a stupid person" which means that you permanently have a property. The property of stupidity is permanently linked to you - you are an example of it.

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The role explanation cleared up my confusion! Thanks! –  knsmr Aug 8 '12 at 20:57
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As a native English speaker, if you say, "you are asking a wrong person", it will sound like you are not a native speaker to me. "You're asking the wrong person" is a common English phrase. So probably the most common thought that English speakers will have after you say "you are asking a wrong person" is that you are missing some knowledge of common, spoken English. The issue of using the contraction "you're" instead of "you are" is also very common. So this points out, or shows, two well known concepts that you are neglecting.

I think that the second question will be of less importance to native speakers. Learning common English phrases and learning common concepts such as contractions will greatly help you in showing that you have mastered English.

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I think that the word the is an attempt to emphasize that the respondent is especially ill-suited to answer the question. It singles out the respondent from all those others who might be asked. It is as if she or he is saying

Boy, am I the [most] wrong person to ask.

This is despite the fact that, when you asked the wrong person is said aloud, emphasis is usually put on the word wrong, not the word the.

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Hmmm, you are simply emphasizing. It makes sense. Thank you for the input! –  knsmr Aug 8 '12 at 21:16
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The phrase is very common and is always used in the context of a single person. To use it in terms of many people goes against common use and sounds wrong to the ears of native English speakers. It is implicitly understood that there will always be many people who are not qualified to answer a question, so it doesn't need to be said. The important thing is that the person you are currently asking is the wrong one.

So that is why the usual way to say this is: "you're asking the wrong person." By using 'the', you are being specific. The person you are asking is the wrong person to be answering the question. Oddly enough the phrase is quite often used to refer to one's self in the third person (that is, you are talking about yourself as if you were a different person). Meaning if you asked me a question that I'm not qualified to make, I might respond, "you're asking the wrong person." Meaning I'm the wrong person.

If you are talking about someone else, you would be more likely to use a phrase like, "they're not the right person to ask." The phrase can be taken literally with no judgement on the person. However, if you wanted to say the same thing a little more forcefully, you could say, "you're asking the wrong person." But when using this phrase and referring to another person, it can often (but not always) be taken to mean that the other person's knowledge or judgement is not of good quality. (It is OK to ask if that is what is meant.) Of course, you could also say, "don't ask him, he's an idiot," but you won't get a job at the United Nations like that. ;)

So in short, when you say, "you are asking 'a' wrong person," it implies you are asking one of many wrong people. It might be a correct use of English in terms of the rules, but it is not correct in terms of the usual vernacular (common phrasing or language use) in most Anglo-Commonwealth or American places, or in the context in which this phrase is usually used.

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"they're not the right person to ask." was an eye-opening example to me. I don't think I will ever get English articles... Thanks, anyways! –  knsmr Aug 8 '12 at 21:13
It's like any language, you have to go hang out where it is spoken natively. And then you will begin to understand the idioms by osmosis ("by osmosis" is itself an idiom for gaining knowledge by direct exposure to the subject). The more you hang out with native english speakers, the more you understand the seemingly strange pieces. I'm sure if someone were to try to learn your language, they would be confused by the native idioms. The proper form of any language is the easy part. The slang and common expressions will make anyone crazy trying to learn over the age of 4 or 5. :) –  BillR Aug 12 '12 at 6:53
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I don't know if it is technically incorrect, but 'asking a wrong person' feel as though you are assigning that person with the property of wrongness, rather than making a mistake yourself.

So, in an example take from a comment

You are asking a stupid person

is okay, since stupid is possibly a suitable adjective for that person, whereas

You are asking a wrong person

implies that the person being questioned has an innate property of wrongness, which isn't the meaning of the phrase. It is the questioner that is wrong.

You could sort of make the phrase work in the right context, such as

Listen boy, there are two types of people in the world. There are the
right people, those who share our views and the wrong people. When you don't
know what to do and need advice, make sure you're not asking a wrong person.

If there are multiple people who a question could be addressed to, the phrase used is

You are asking the wrong people

or to make it more explicit that you are only asking one person

You are asking one of the wrong people
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Hmm, I agree with the first part, but I'm not so sure about the second. –  rsegal Aug 8 '12 at 4:22
I changed the example to something less clumsy, although it still isn't perfect. –  Bogdanovist Aug 8 '12 at 4:26
This is an interesting take on this. It is stretch though. In normal speech you wouldn't say someone is a wrong person. You would say, there is something wrong with that person. Or, "there's something wrong with the person you just asked." –  BillR Aug 8 '12 at 5:33
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Yes, but you're asking a specific wrong person, videlicet ME, not just any wrong person. And I want to set up my followthrough: for perfect courtesy I should continue by telling you "The RIGHT person is Joe over there."

Actually, that's so much who-shot-John. I say "the" because it's the idiom. If I said "a" I'd get funny looks.

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Interestingly, one could say “you’re asking a stupid person”, but not with “the” there. Probably. Depends on how else is around. :) –  tchrist Aug 8 '12 at 4:00
@tchrist, I think the difference is that being stupid means you have certain properties undesirable for answering questions. Being the wrong person to answer a question is a more complicated assessment where you're being singled out as a bad source of information, which is a recommendation to the listener. In the personal assessment of being the wrong person, it's more about the I and less about how or why you're the wrong person, whereas in being stupid it's less about "I" and more about being an example of a stupid person. –  rsegal Aug 8 '12 at 4:13
@rsegal We seem to have cross-posted similar sentiments. –  Bogdanovist Aug 8 '12 at 4:17
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Can I say "you are asking a wrong person"?

You could, but a native speaker wouldn't.

It's similar to you're barking up the wrong tree. You're only addressing a single person, and it's in comparison to the right person.

Yes, there can be more than one right person, too, but this is just the way English goes in this case.

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