I noticed an infinite article; ‘a’ was used before ‘defeated Napoleon’ in the following sentence of Jeffery Archer’s novel, "Fales Impression" :

“General Sir Harry Wentworth sat at the right hand of the Iron Duke that night, and was commanding his left flank when a defeated Napoleon rode off the battlefield and into exile."

I’m curious to know why it should be “a defeated Napoleon,” not “the defeated Napoleon” or simply “defeated Napoleon.” Isn’t it only one Napoleon who was defeated the battle and exiled (to St. Helena). It looks like as though there were many (defeated) Napoleons who were exiled.

It’s always headache for me to handle articles as we Japanese (I think Chinese too) don’t have article as the basic part of speeches in our language system. I’ve studied it on English grammar text books at school, but have never reached full understanding of the usage of articles, because we don’t have that practice. Is there any special knack to master how to use articles?

3 Answers 3


This is a difficult construction to justify; but before tackling that thorny question, let’s pause to confirm that it’s idiomatic and quite standard, with a couple of other random examples:

A thinner Kim Jong-Il at the Supreme People’s Assembly — The Independent

A young Cary Grant plays her leading man for the second time. — Wikipedia

This construction is used typically to put emphasis on the adjective. My best shot at an analysis of “why” would be: because it’s evoking the spectrum of all the different kinds of Napoleon that could have left the field — triumphant Napoleons, preoccupied Napoleons, crazy cyborg Napoleons — and so it’s picking out a defeated Napoleon.

But this is very much a post-hoc analysis; as you show, one can also argue cogently for why the would make more sense in these places. Ultimately, this may be one of those constructions that just is — it’s difficult to analyse, but it’s part of how we speak and write (and has been for long enough that it’s not stigmatised by prescriptivists).

To my ear, incidentally, …the defeated Napoleon… and The young Cary Grant… would both also work fine in our examples, but The thinner Kim Jong-Il… would be incorrect.

  • 1
    Per my own answer, I think the reason the thinner King Jong-Il doesn't work is because he doesn't have two known "alter egos" (the fatter and the thinner) that we're sufficiently familiar with to casually juxtapose the pair. The alternatives need to "pre-exist" in the mind of the reader if they're to be introduced as "the" rather than "a". Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 2:29
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    @JeffSahol: Oops! Thanks for the head-up. A typo that good, though, I feel quite sad to correct…
    – PLL
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 3:45
  • @FumbleFingers: hmm… I’m somewhat convinced by the “pre-existing” part of your suggestion (though there are still examples that don’t quite seem to fit it, like The reliable Brigitte Fassbaender is solid, if unconventional casting); less so by the “two” part, since there seem to be just as many examples with no obvious counterparts (The magnificent Mr. Handel) or several (The (young/middle-aged/older/etc.) Cary Grant). This seems a paricularly difficult construction to even analyse the connotations of, let alone explicate the reasons behind!
    – PLL
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 4:05

It's a literary/oratorial device. You certainly wouldn't often come acrosss it in normal speech - only somewhat flamboyant prose or speechifying.

Think of it as meaning that Napoleon is a man of many aspects, victorious on other occasions, but defeated this time. Using the article implies that this is only one of several possible Napoleons that have or will exist. A writer might indeed use the as OP suggests, but a is more common for this usage.

I think the is more likely to be used when there are known distinct "versions" of the subject (in practice, often only two). In OP's example the writer probably doesn't see Napoleon as a simple man with only the aspects "winner" and "loser"; using a emphasises the complexity of the man better. In general, the tends to be used only when the particular aspect of the subject that's being presented is already familiar to the reader/audience.

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    @FumbleFingers. To me Napoleon seems to be exactly apply to the case of ‘already familiar with most of audience and readers’ for being the tragic hero who was fatally beaten in Russia and exiled to the island of Elba in 1814, then again to St. Helena after the defeat at Waterloo, which satisfies your condition for allowing the use of ‘the.’ Doesn’t it? Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 8:55
  • @Yoichi Oishi: Well I agree with PPL that "the" could have been used in this case. But I still think that would imply a lesser number of different Napoleons, but your writer probably wants to maximise the number of facets his subject has. Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 11:15

The indefinite article "a" emphasizes that this is a new Napoleon, not the Napoleon that we were familiar with before.

I would not expect to see this usage colloquially. I am not sure there is a word for it, but I'd say there is a bit of license, poetic or otherwise, involved.

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