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Man is a social animal.

This sentence is understandable, but has two problems:

  1. The gender-neutral use of man is nowadays often seen as sexist.
  2. The phrasing seems archaic.

Let’s ignore the second problem and try to fix only the first:

*Human is a social animal.

This is just wrong. But why? It’s exactly the same phrasing; the only change is that it now has a truly gender-neutral word instead of the pseudo-gender-neutral man. What’s wrong with that?

To truly render that phrase in modern English, you need to either pluralize it or recast it entirely:

Humans are social animals.
Humanity is a social species.

Somehow the “generic singular” which works with man does not work with human. Why not?

  • 1
    "Human" is short for "human being" and I don't understand why you say "Human is a social animal" is wrong. If you think it is wrong, you can use "the" as in "The human is a social animal." – user140086 Dec 29 '16 at 19:05
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    Idiomaticity trumps most other concerns. I'd stick with the original. In spite of there also being a strong argument that man should not be classed as an animal along with other sentient lifeforms. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 29 '16 at 19:06
  • Humans are social animals is perfectly fine. – Mari-Lou A Dec 29 '16 at 19:18
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    Human can be used as an indefinite generic noun phrase, with an indefinite article (because it's a count noun). A human is a social animal is fine, but human is not the same as man, which is an idiomatic word for the entire species, especially and unpredictably the male parts of the species. Don't expect the two words to behave the same just because they mean something similar. That's normally a reason for them to develop different uses and grammar; otherwise why have two? – John Lawler Dec 29 '16 at 22:41
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    When man is used to refer to the species homo sapien, it is "humankind (personified as an individual) (Oxford English Dictionary; Merriam-Webster unabridged has a similar note). The word human has not been so personified. – AmE speaker Jan 5 '17 at 22:17
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"The human being is a social animal."

(See relevant Google Ngram Viewer chart that confirms that this usage exists and seems to be more common than something like "The human is a social animal.")

"Man" in this construction just doesn't behave like a normal singular noun, so you can't substitute one. You have to use an ordinary singular noun phrase, and singular noun phrases in English usually have to include some determiner like the or a (the main exception I can think of is mass nouns like "water" or "grass"). In these kind of "generic singular" contexts, the definite article the is often used as the determiner of the singular noun.

It doesn't seem very unusual to me that the word "man" developed unique grammatical features like this. It has a very general meaning and words like this often undergo some degree of "grammaticalization". In German, "man" has become even more grammaticalized and is an indefinite pronoun. In French, the Latin noun homo "man" developed into the indefinite pronoun on, which subsequently gained a further grammatical use as a first-person plural pronoun.

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    What about Humans are social creatures/animals? – Mari-Lou A Dec 29 '16 at 19:17
  • @Mari-LouA: That works too; I just decided to focus on constructions with a singular noun phrase because the original post says "To truly render that phrase in modern English, you need to either pluralize it or recast it entirely ... Somehow the “generic singular” which works with man does not work with human." – sumelic Dec 29 '16 at 19:33
  • Men are social animals/creatures means something quite different that's why the plural form doesn't work in this case. I see nothing wrong with saying "humans" to represent men and women. – Mari-Lou A Dec 29 '16 at 19:55
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People are social animals

College students* are social animals (*or any other labeled group bringing to mind people within a context)

I think the problem with "human" is that it is too synonymous with the scientific classification and in doing so misses emphasizing the dichotomy of culture vs biology.

Culturally Formed Outcome vs Biological Underpinning

That is why I bring up "college students". A college student's life is defined by weeks a semester, tasks relating to studies, walking to lectures, writing papers, and we could throw in stereotypes about drinking coffee and beer, a most commonly unwed child-free state etc.

'People' is the largest "group" of living, socialized human beings, I can think of.

... but it still doesn't convey "man" , because "man" meant something more that reflected ideas of the times within which it was used

"Man" , as it was used, I believe, implied heavy doses of "use of tools", and "artistic expression", and "technological achievement" and "the march of history". The word represented a "world-view" different than "people" means today.

When we've put aside the word "man" we've also put aside human-centric notions that ... gee, we can even talk about the changes in perception of our place in the universe once we knew the Sun didn't revolve around the Earth and that stars were millions of clumps of hydrogen fusion spun across a universe of multiple galaxies.

I'm not sure it is even possible to mean "man" the way it was meant before because what we know now prevents the word from evoking what it meant then.

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