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For example, do I say:

Are you a Russian?
Are you an American?

– or should I say:

Are you Russian?
Are you American?

  • 'Are you Russian?' sounds less in-your-face to my ears. There's little difference between 'Is she a Russian?' and 'Is she Russian?', though. But note that there isn't always a noun which is an intercategorial polyseme of the adjective: 'Is he English?' ('Is he an Englishman?' sounds rather comical nowadays.) – Edwin Ashworth Sep 2 '17 at 15:33
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    The suggested duplicate merely addresses the difference between a and an, rather than whether an article is needed. – Andrew Leach Sep 2 '17 at 15:54
  • I think there is a considerable difference in nuance between "are you Russian?" where Russian is an adjective and "are you Russian?" where Russian is a noun. Asking whether someone is Russian involves asking whether Russian is one of the person's attributes. Asking whether the person is a Russian implies that the person's whole identity rests on his or her nationality. The difference in implication is somewhat similar to the difference between asking "Are you romantic?" and asking "Are you a romantic?" In one case, the word suggests a characteristic; in the other, an identity. – Sven Yargs Sep 2 '17 at 19:10
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You can use either form. Your confusion results from the fact that the two different forms require different parts of speech, but the two parts of speech for some nationalities are the same word.

If you want to say

I am x

Where x refers to a class you belong to, then x has to be a (predicate) adjective.

But if you want to say

I am a/an x

Then the article has to specify some noun, so x has to be a noun.

For some nationalities (and other types of classes), such as "American" or "Russian", the noun and the adjective are the same word. But for other nationalities (etc.) this is not the case. So you could say

He is Polish

without an article, but with one, you'd have to say

He is a Pole

unless you wanted to use the class adjective to modify some other noun:

He is a Polish citizen.

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I'm going to stick my neck out. I'm remembering a "rule" from my high school English classes, but a quick search of the Internet isn't revealing it.

Traditionally (as I recall being taught), and in formal "book English," membership in a group or community is not an adjective and therefore requires the article to create association. Thus, "I am an American," "I am a Catholic," "I am a Free Mason," "I am a Boy Scout."

Colloquially, it's very common to turn group membership into an adjective because people associate group membership with their personal identity. It is part of what describes "who they are." Thus, "I'm American" and "I'm Catholic."

However, removing the article doesn't always work. For example, "I'm Mason" and "I'm Scout" simply don't work (at least they don't work for me).

I do not know what makes a word "adjectifiable" and what does not. Although at a guess, the words that work appear to be those that started without the "n/ian" ending and can take the "n/ian" ending.

  • "I am a citizen of America" becomes "I am an American" becomes "I'm American."

  • "I am a citizen of Mars" becomes "I am a Martian" becomes "I'm Martian."

The idea of "I am a member of the Boy Scouts" becoming "I am a Boy Scoutian" and therefore "I'm Scoutian" makes me cringe.... For some reason, "scout" doesn't take the "n/ian" ending.

  • “I’m Mason” works fine if that happens to be your name. If your name is Scout, though, chances are your parents are bad spellers. I’m afraid you’ve got the order of things backwards here, though: words like American and Catholic are first and foremost adjectives, but can then (like all predicative adjectives can, to some degree) be nominalised to function as nouns and take articles. Freemason and Boy Scout are nouns, and nouns usually cannot be used as predicative adjectives (though they can commonly be used as attributive adjectives). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 2 '17 at 23:25

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