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Why does "Are you a Japanese?" sound wrong compared to "Are you Japanese"? As opposed to "Are you a Canadian?" and "Are you Canadian?", both of which sound fine.

Unfortunately, I don't know enough about how to ask this question to use meaningful tags, sorry.

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    I found the similar kind of question has already been asked and answered in stack exchange. Here is the link to it; ell.stackexchange.com/questions/183/why-is-a-japanese-offensive Hope it will help.
    – Sashikanta
    Dec 20, 2019 at 8:54
  • Welcome to ELU. See also: English Language Learners Good Luck.
    – Kris
    Dec 20, 2019 at 10:49
  • For the same reason you can say 'Are you a German' but not 'Are you a French?' (which doesn't really answer the question sorry!). You can be 'Spanish' but you are a 'Spaniard'. I guess the closest answer I can give is that not all words describing someones nationality are the same as the word for a singular person of that nationality.
    – Smock
    Dec 20, 2019 at 11:06
  • There's also a fundamental difference between the two. There is a Canadian nationality, but no Canadian race, so there is no ambiguity about the question, no matter how it's asked. But there is both a Japanese nationality, and a Japanese race, so the question is ambiguous. Mar 16, 2022 at 20:04
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4 Answers 4

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English has no systematic way of naming people of a given nationality. Some nationalities have only an adjective ("he is a Chinese man"), some have an adjective and a special noun ("she is a Scottish woman/she is a Scot", "He is a Swedish man/He is a Swede"), and some have an adjective and a noun that are the same word ("she is a German/she is German")

In your question, you've discovered the first category (Japanese) and the third (German), and you've also touched on the only real rule in deciding between them...

"-an": the noun is (usually) the same

Where the adjective ends with "-an", you can be reasonably confident in using it as a standalone noun too. For example, the following are all usable as the word in the two sentences "She was a(n) _____ woman" and "She was a(n) _____":

  • Alaskan
  • Californian
  • German
  • Ghanaian
  • Moroccan
  • Mayan
  • Texan

Be careful that you don't accidentally a word that has a more common meaning already: someone from the Dalmatia region of Croatia is indeed "a Dalmatian", but if you use that word, people will think you're calling them a dog.

"-ese" can't be used as a noun

For adjectives ending in "-ese", you can't use the word as a noun. There's either a special noun to describe the person (Faroese/Faroer), or none at all (Chinese, Japanese). There aren't many of these adjectives in English.

everything else, you have to learn, sorry.

In cases where the adjective doesn't end in any of these, it's hit or miss.

Not "-an", but still the same word In many cases, the "official" noun is the same as the adjective, although this is an old rule, and today most of these will sound a little odd, archaic, or even insulting even though they're still technically correct (e.g., "an Argentine","a Basque", "a Swiss") - the only one I can think of offhand that doesn't sound strange is "Greek".

"A Basque" is also an example of the case where you need to be careful of not using a word that has another more common meaning (here, the kind of corset worn by women).

use the stem There's also a whole collection of special nouns, like "Swedish/Swede", "Finnish/Finn" where the noun is just the stem of the adjective. But be careful: "a Flemish man " is most definitely not a "Flem"

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    Contrary to what this answer claims: Many adjectives ending in "-ese" can most certainly be used as a noun. See e.g. ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=Japanese. Mar 16, 2022 at 19:09
  • @DanielAsimov It would be helpful if the answer did distinguish between the plural noun and the singular noun, but it's obvious from the choice of article in the question. We say "The Japanese are hard working..." not "A Japanese walked into a bar..."
    – ColleenV
    Mar 16, 2022 at 19:35
  • @Daniel Asimov.. Beware of old dictionaries reproduced on the Internet without context. That usage is not common in modern English (I can say this definitely for British English and quite confidently in American) , and sounds old fashioned or at worst insulting : the answer here by Aralcar explains this.
    – KrisW
    Mar 17, 2022 at 21:03
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Preferred demonyms and their usages change over time. "A Japanese" was formerly a common and semantically neutral way to refer to an individual of Japanese origin, but it has been supplanted by "a Japanese person," so it sounds wrong now.

In the 1930s, the common and preferred term was "a Japanese," so it would not have sounded wrong to English speakers then. Consider the following examples:

  • When Japanese-American writer Thomas Masuda addressed the topic of conduct in a 1933 issue of The Japanese-American Courier, he wrote: "If a Japanese should do something either good or bad, he would be singled out by this fellow countrymen merely as an individual."
  • A 1935 Time Magazine article on Japan included this sentence: "Two young matrons whom a Japanese would recognize by name are Mrs. John Jacob Astor 3rd and Countess (Barbara Hutton) Haugwitz."

These preferences will vary between demonyms of the same form; there is no rule in English that the -ese suffix can be used only in adjectives and not in nouns. For example, a person from Guyana is still commonly called "a Guyanese," as seen in Akola Thompson's 2021 article "Nine things to consider when dating a Guyanese." Thompson is from Guyana.

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Both mean the same thing, but there's a subtle difference between the two phrases.

If I ask you, "are you Canadian?", you are likely to feel that I'm asking about your personal attribute. I'm interested in you, and perhaps want to know more about you.

But if I ask you "are you a Canadian?", it's more impersonal. I'm lumping you in with a group of those people. It's not directly insulting, and that might not be my intention, but it could feel that way.

Both involve stereotyping, but with the first one I'm trying to build my image of Canadians using you as a type, but with the second one I'm more likely to be applying my existing image of Canadians to you.

But note that this generalization doesn't always apply to all nationalities. I've known Scotsmen that would much prefer to be known as "a Scot" than as merely "Scottish" (though it can be a deliberate humorous affectation on their part). There's a long tradition of national pride in Scottish history and how "the Scots" resisted invasion and assimilation from Roman times until the present.

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    "a Scot" versus "Scottish" isn't an affectation - it's a grammatical distinction between a noun (Scot) and an Adjective (Scottish). "Scotsman/Scotswoman" is an alternative noun to "Scot" if you want to emphasise the gender as well as nationality, but "Scot" has been in modern usage in British English for at least thirty years (i.e., as long as I've been aware of English dialects)
    – KrisW
    Dec 21, 2019 at 0:46
  • The "affectation" I was referring to wasn't the use of the word, but the attitude that went with it, that Scots have a superior history to other peoples. In other contexts it would be unacceptable racism; in this context it was more self-deprecating. Dec 21, 2019 at 1:45
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    There's no distinction in tone or meaning between "Scot" and "Scotsman/Scotswoman" in British English. There's also no context where "Scot" would be considered a pejorative (not confusing it with the noun "scot" meaning a tax or punishment - that's of unrelated Scandinavian origin).
    – KrisW
    Dec 21, 2019 at 1:56
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"Are you Japanese?" asks about the ethnic background of a person.

"Are you a Japanese?" asks whether the recipient of the question is a Japanese person.

Presumably it has already been established that the recipient of the question is a person. For that reason, this version of the question is partially superfluous, and so should be avoided.

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