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I am confused with the use of an indefinite article in front of British or Chinese. To my understanding, we can place an indefinite article in front of any “countable noun”. So, we can say a cup and an orange.

But when it comes to nationalities, it is very confusing. For example, we can say an American or a German. But we cannot say a British or a Chinese.

I looked them up in a dictionary as at first I thought British and Chinese are adjectives in the above statement and that is why we cannot place an article in front of it.

However, the dictionary mentions that they are nouns. Does that mean they are uncountable nouns?

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The noun for an inhabitant of Britain is Briton.
British is an adjective.

For many countries, the adjective and noun are identical. As you've found, German and American are good examples.

The noun for an inhabitant of China has historically been Chinaman but in recent times, the word Chinese has been increasingly used.

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    Or sometimes 'Brit', if you are American. – Erik Kowal Sep 3 '14 at 10:54
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    'American' the adjective is exactly the same word as 'American' the noun. – Ilythya Sep 3 '14 at 11:54
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    FYI man in Chinaman is not gender specific either because it refers to the species of mankind not the gender. Same applies to jobs like chairman, etc. – JamesRyan Sep 3 '14 at 13:53
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    Hasn't Chinaman become pejorative? – Homer Sep 3 '14 at 14:42
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    @JamesRyan: you may use these words with that intent, but it is clear that many people will now understand them more restrictively. The meaning has changed, at least for those people, and I'm afraid there is nothing that you, I, the Oxford English Dictionary, or the Academie Francaise can do about it. – Colin Fine Sep 3 '14 at 15:18
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Your dictionary may list British and Chinese as nouns because they are used as collective nouns, to refer to the population of each country as a whole or as a generalization:

The British are mad about football (soccer).

Compare with

Americans are obsessed with football (not soccer).

The British is really just a short form of The British people, with the noun presumed. In the same way, you can say "I'll have the red" when someone asks you what type of wine you want -- the noun (wine) is presumed, so the adjective stands on its own.

  • People do occasionally use Chinese and Japanese as countable nouns ("A Japanese", "two Chinese" etc), but it sounds very strange to me (native, UK). I've only ever seen it written in non-fiction books or academic papers by authors aged 50+, never heard it spoken. – user56reinstatemonica8 Sep 4 '14 at 10:30
  • That's true -- as discussed in the comments to the other answer, the use of a Chinese has developed because the historical noun is no longer considered politically correct. However, the same can't be said for a British; I'm pretty sure that if a dictionary is listing British as a noun, it is the collective use that is being referenced. – AmeliaBR Sep 5 '14 at 14:43
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The problem is that sometimes there is an easily available adjective form but not an easily available noun form.

This is also complicated by the fact that we can form a collective noun from an adjective by adding the definite article, such as the rich or the famous. Now British, English and Welsh are adjectives, and we can certainly talk about the British, the English and the Welsh. We cannot however say a British, an English or a Welsh because the proper noun forms are different. We need to say a Briton (or a Brit, as noted by Erik), an Englishman or an Englishwoman and a Welshman or a Welshwoman.

There are other instances when the adjective form and the noun form are identical: you have already noted American and German. Other examples are Italian, African, Israeli, Indonesian, Pakistani, Indian and Brazilian. You might note that many in this category end with -an or -i. This might be useful as a rule of thumb for adjectives that can be used as nouns too.

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    Polish, Swedish, Finish, Turkish, Danish etc are like English (with nouns Pole, Swede, Finn, Turk, Dane, etc). The -ish formation seems to be older and looks Anglo-Saxon to me. – Francis Davey Sep 4 '14 at 7:11
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    So is it true that all -ish nationality adjectives (and similar variteties, like French) can't be used as countable nouns, but all other nationality adjectives can? If so, that'd be a handy rule (but I'd be surprised if it's that simple...). I can't think of any exceptions. – user56reinstatemonica8 Sep 4 '14 at 10:24
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    I can't think of an exception either. The rule also applies to Scottish, Irish, Flemish, Cornish, Spanish and even Wendish, Lettish and Rhenish which are rather less often used. Also Manx. – Francis Davey Sep 4 '14 at 16:39
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    Yes, I think today -ish adjectives are like -ese adjectives (Japanese, Portuguese, Sinhalese). – Peter Sep 5 '14 at 3:42
  • "A Brit" may be used in some places, but it is no more the correct term for an inhabitant of the UK than "a Yank" is for an inhabitant of the USA. – Tim Lymington supports Monica Mar 19 '17 at 21:37
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I upvoted @Chanmunka's answer, but let me add an additional thought that's too long to fit in a comment:

Yes, the usage is inconsistent, or at least appears inconsistent.

For some nationalities, the noun for a person from that place and the adjective for that place are the same. "Bob is an American. Bob drives an American car." "Erwin is a German. Erwin drives a German car."

For others the words are different. "Richard is a Briton." But, "Richard drives a British car."

Oh, and by the way, often you make the adjective by dropping any final vowel and adding -an to the noun. Like America -> American, Mexico -> Mexican, Venezuela -> Venezuelan, Russia -> Russian. If it ends in -y you change the -y to an -i-: Italy -> Italian. But for some reason Canada does not become "Canadan" but Canadian. Other times we drop the final syllable and add -ish. Like Britain -> British, Poland -> Polish, Ireland -> Irish. And then there are always the weird cases, like Netherlands becomes not "Netherlandan" or "Netherish" but Dutch.

For many nations the convention used to be that we used the adjective plus -man or the name of the place plus -man to refer to a person from that country. "Francois is a Frenchman." "Li is a Chinaman." Etc. As the conversation on another post indicated, some now consider that sexist, but no clear alternative has become accepted, so we're rather stuck using a phrase, "Francois is from France" or "Francois is a French person."

When the adjective is different from the noun, you can use "the" plus the adjective to describe the people of that nation as a whole. "The British like to drink tea." "The Chinese built the Great Wall." When the adjective is the same as the noun, you use the plural to describe that nation as a whole. "Germans are hard-working people." "Italians are crazy." Etc.

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    Americans, at least, routinely say that someone is "a German" or "a Canadian". We most definitely do not say "a French", but rather "a French person" or "from France". Maybe usage in other English-speaking countries is different. – Jay Sep 4 '14 at 17:13
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    I'm not sure of your correspondence between Netherlands and Dutch - I have been corrected in the past by Friesians (from Friesland, part of the Netherlands) that "Dutch" refers specifically to Holland (another part of the Netherlands), and it as insulting to call a citizen of Friesland (or Gelderland, or Zeeland, etc.) "Dutch" as it is to call a Scotsman "English". Map of Netherlands here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlands#mediaviewer/… – Grimxn Sep 5 '14 at 14:10
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    @grimxn Yes, I've heard that too, didn't go into it as it was a side note on the main subject. I think 99.9% of Americans would call anyone from the Netherlands "Dutch", and to the best of my knowledge we have no more general term. Happy to hear if anyone has more information on this. – Jay Sep 5 '14 at 14:19
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    @Jay, which leaves us with the question - what is the adjective from Netherlands? :) – Grimxn Sep 5 '14 at 14:20
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    @grimxn Yeah, that's my point. At least for the Scottish question, we have a general word: "British". For the Netherlands, to the best of my knowledge, we don't, and so we use Dutch for all of them. BTW reminds me of a World War 2 movie I saw years ago, where a representative from the military is sent to tell a family that their son has been killed in action. He tries to console them by saying, "He died fighting for England." And the father replies harshly, "He was Scottish." Leaving the army guy stammering. – Jay Sep 5 '14 at 14:23
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It's a question of plurality.

"An American" signifies an individual whose is a citizen of the United States of America. To signify the entire populations, you'd say "Americans".

"British" signifies the entire population of the United Kingdom. An individual would be referred to as a Briton.

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