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I read a news report today which is titled "Chinese State Media Slams Soros As 'The Most Evil Person In The World' And 'The Son Of Satan'".

My question is not about politics but English grammar. Does the expression "the son of Satan" implies that the one being accused is the ONLY son of Satan? (Yes, I know, the phrasing of this question sounds odd no matter how I put it, but bear with me, the question is really about the usage of the definite article "the".) If so, since it is not a widely accepted belief that Satan only has one son, "the son of Satan" should actually be "a son of Satan".

As a English native speaker, do you feel it is odd (with regard to grammar rules) to call someone "the son of Satan"?

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  • Are you saying that a son of Satan, implying there are other sons, is a better default position if we lack information one way or the other? Damned if you do...
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 2:56
  • @DjinTonic Which sounds more natural to native ears? The "the" version or the "a" version?
    – John Z. Li
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 3:03
  • As in the case of "the son of Santa," it is difficult to prove that a being whose very existence is subject to dispute had more than one son.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 3:07
  • 1
    To say that an individual is 'the son of David' is to single them out as, for example, being the heir to the throne of David. But to say that someone is 'a son of David' merely points to them as having a common heritage with others. The article does make a difference. Up-voted +1 as there is a point to be realised, here.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 10:54
  • 1
    @JohnZ.Li Yes, that's the tiebreaker. "The" sounds more natural to me.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 11:10

1 Answer 1

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It does not sound odd at all, and wouldn't imply that he is the only one.

This use of the fits the following definition as the referent George Soros has been previously mentioned - which son of Satan we're talking about is clear so we may use the definite article.

OED

A. adj. Definite article (determiner).

I. Referring to an individual item (or items).

  • Marking an item as having been mentioned before or as already known, or as contextually particularized (e.g. They escaped in a car. The car was later found abandoned or I had some in a jar but it all leaked out through the lid).

And could be understood through following definition also,

A II Referring to a term used generically or universally.

  • With a singular noun or an adjective.

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b. In predicative use: before a noun or noun phrase of this kind used to indicate that a person is a notable example of the class.

1761 T. Smollett et al. tr. Voltaire Wks. V. 82 In reading the history of Henry IV. by father Daniel, we are surprised at not finding him the great man.

1767 A. Young Adventures Emmera I. iv. 13 I am often surprized you should have treated so coldly a man so much the gentleman.

1838 M. M. Sherwood Henry Milner iii. ix. 175 He is a genteel young man—no snob—quite the gentleman.

1897 A. R. Marshall ‘Pomes’ from Pink 'Un 8 She was quite the lady In deportment and dress.

1925 L. H. Myers Clio i. 8 Marie, golden-haired, short-skirted, very much the soubrette, began tripping about the room.

1934 P. Lynch Turf-cutter's Donkey xiii. 101 Isn't he the clever lad!

1955 ‘P. Dennis’ Auntie Mame iv. 62 In the process of coaching the kid, the old girl became quite the athlete herself.

2000 K. Charles Cruel Habitations (2001) xv. 283 ‘Oh, bully for you,’ she sneered. ‘Aren't you the noble one?’

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language comments on similar uses of the on p369

Under certain circumstances, however, the definite article can be appropriate with a count singular even when the context does not strictly limit the number of entities satisfying the description given in the nominal to just one:

[3]

i Put your cup down on the arm of your chair.

ii He married the daughter of his bank manager.

An (arm-)chair has two arms, but the definite article in [i] is in order on the assumption that it doesn’t matter which one you choose. Again, then, the definite article signals my expectation that you don’t need to ask Which arm of my chair? In [ii] it could be that the bank manager has in fact two daughters, but the is again appropriate on the assumption that you don’t need to ask Which one?: perhaps the other is already married, or too young to marry, perhaps you don’t know that there are two, and perhaps it simply doesn’t matter, the important point being only that his bank manager was the father of the woman he married.

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