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I'm scared of him. That man is her killer.

I'm scared of him. That's the man who killed her.

They can be used interchangeably, but "killer" means "one who kills" and has an implication for habitual action. Why are these sentences basically equivalents? Why is "that's the man who killed her" closer to what we want to convey rather than "that's the man who kills her" when we say "that man is her killer"? I don't see how one sentence like "that man is her killer" can imply both habitual and non-habitual actions. If you say "That man is the bathroom's cleaner" then it's implied that he cleans the bathroom habitually, but if you say "That man is the company's founder" then you don't imply he habitually founds the company where he constantly tears it down and founds it again.

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  • There seems to be a flaw in your assumption. 'That man is her killer' and 'That man is a killer' have different meanings, just like 'That man is the company director' [strictly one of the company's directors, but either way referring to one specific company] as against 'That man is a company director' [which implies 'habitual' in the sense that he probably is on more than one board]. Sep 29, 2015 at 22:30
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    "Killer" does not imply "habitual". If someone kills only once they are a killer. (But you are correct that they do not mean exactly the same thing. It's quite normal for minor variations in wording such as the above to carry different connotations. But there is no formulaic way to define what the different connotations might be in one case vs the next -- it requires writing (and reading) experience.)
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 29, 2015 at 23:05
  • But dictionary definitions say that "killer" means "one that kills." Present tense here seems to imply a habitual action. If you only had to kill once to be a killer, why don't more dictionaries have a definition like "one that has killed"?
    – Joe
    Sep 30, 2015 at 0:37
  • Because dictionaries assume you will apply a modicum of common sense.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 30, 2015 at 2:15
  • @TimLymington But both of your examples about directors imply a habitual action while "that man is her killer" does not. I don't see how context can overrule a definition in such a way, and I don't see a source for that.
    – Joe
    Sep 30, 2015 at 7:08

2 Answers 2

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That man is her killer.

This can have many meanings, e.g.

  1. That man is the person who is destined to kill her. [or has been assigned the task]

  2. That man is the man who killed her.

  3. That man is employed by her to kill people. [He is her hit-man]

My answer to your question is that English is highly dependent on context. A sentence's meaning depends on what we already know. That is how the sentence can have the meanings you suggest—and others.

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If he is the man that killed her then "That is the man that killed her".

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