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"?

  • 3
    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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    @Marcin: I don't have any idea about that but downvoting a question like this, may make them feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask about anything on their mind.
    – user8568
    May 22 '11 at 14:15

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


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.

  • 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?
    – amit kumar
    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

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.)


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.


Man here means mankind, an abstract noun.

It should not take any article.

  • 2
    And why the down vote? Maybe the answer's too short and lacks a reference. But this is the correct answer, unlike nearly all the others. See definition 2.1 in the Oxford Dictionaries Online. May 30 '14 at 12:23

"Man" can be used as a mass noun, and so it is here.

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