10

With Neil Armstrong's death today, many news sites are posting articles that quote Neil Armstrong as "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.".

My question is, does the quote make sense without the 'a'?

and what is the history of the 'a' or not 'a'?

5
  • 1
    I don't think history of quotes is on-topic here.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Aug 25, 2012 at 21:45
  • 3
    @Luke, the FAQ includes etymology, and while i know that is the history of words not phrases or quotes, it is close. And the site already has a history tag for phrases
    – Jonathan.
    Commented Aug 25, 2012 at 22:16
  • 3
    This Wikipedia page has an analysis of this quote, (in the section title "First Moon walk"). I believe it answers everything that the OP has asked here. So, I'm voting to close this, as general reference.
    – user16269
    Commented Aug 25, 2012 at 23:51
  • -1 no research. Rightly closed GR.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Aug 26, 2012 at 21:27
  • If you going to bother closing a question you could at least close it before answers are posted. It is preferable to get an answer from a human with which you can communicate with, than a Wikipedia page which any can edit (although I'm not one of those people who think Wikipedia must be avoided)
    – Jonathan.
    Commented Aug 26, 2012 at 21:44

4 Answers 4

19

"A man" means one man. Without "a", it means man as in the whole population. To me, it doesn't make sense without the "a". "Man" without any articles means the same thing as "mankind".

Originally, there was no article, however. The words were:

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

However, according to the transcript, "a" was meant to be said. That is the source of confusion.

This article and this article explain the dropping of "a". Here is the transcript.

Historical accuracy aside, it makes the most sense with "a".

7
  • 1
    I agree without 'a' 'man' means the whole population. But I figured that it referred more to the people alive at the time, (or more those behind the whole Apollo program), whereas mankind refers to the human race, all past and future living people.
    – Jonathan.
    Commented Aug 25, 2012 at 22:19
  • No, "man" refers to "human beings collectively; mankind". This definition man is a synonym to mankind.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Aug 25, 2012 at 23:13
  • @Jonathan: I like your interpretation. Too bad Buzz didn't give that idea to Neil on their way back to earth ~ that might have gone over better than the static story.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 26, 2012 at 20:52
  • 2
    I've always parsed it as "small step f'ra man". I.e. "for a" all glued up in drawl.
    – Kaz Dragon
    Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 7:50
  • As a child, I understood it as "one small step for [this] man ..." Cross reference "man and wife" as an example of singular individual use without the article. Such examples are common in poetry, and considering the gravity of the circumstance, would not poetry be the point? To me, "a man" makes the phrase vulgar, not poetic.
    – user39425
    Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 6:36
8

Yes, the 'a' should definitely be there.

As for the history, Armstrong said his radio cut out on the 'a' and he was misquoted. NASA's transcript can be found here.

[At the time of the mission, the world heard Neil say "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind". As Andrew Chaikin details in A Man on the Moon, after the mission, Neil said that he had intended to say 'one small step for a man' and believed that he had done so. However, he also agreed that the 'a' didn't seem to be audible in the recordings. The important point is that the world had no problem understanding his meaning.]

1
  • Armstrong is full of it. The radio didn't cut. If he said it, he was speaking slow and slurred "for a man" like it was a single word.
    – user39425
    Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 6:37
3

Armstrong's quote was originally planned to include the word "a":

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

This makes the most since, since it contrasts the actions of a single man with the consequences for all of humanity.

However, in the excitement of landing on the moon, he miffed the delivery. In the recording, he clearly says That's one small step for man, which ruins the sense of the quote since "man" without the indefinite article would generally be taken as synecdoche for humankind. The quote can be found in both versions in various sources.

2
  • Actually audio analysis has shown he definitely said 'a'. See links in answers above. Commented Aug 26, 2012 at 9:18
  • At best, he slurred "for a man".
    – user39425
    Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 6:38
1

You’re unlikely to find a fuller answer to your question than in the extensive discussion on Language Log, beginning here.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.