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Be careful with nationalities

Posted by R. Berg on May 29, 2001

In Reply to: Thanks and additional question posted by ESC on May 28, 2001

: : Hi!

: : Thanks a lot for your interesting observations, ESC and R.Berg.

: : How about the following sentences? They may not be acceptable as generic statements?

: : 1. A Italian is a good cook.
: : 2. The Italian is a good cook.

: : Thanks again!

: : All the best,

: : K Yone

: 1. An (rather than "a") Italian is a good cook. That would be correct grammatically but it is a stereotype -- you are saying that any Italian is a good cook.
: 2. The Italian is a good cook. You are saying a specific Italian is a good cook. That sounds OK but I wonder why you wouldn't use a person's name and not just "the Italian." Maybe it's an international "cook off" and no names are used.

In the 19th century, writers used to say "The Italian has a hot temper" or "The Spaniard is a passionate sort" or "The Scotsman pinches pennies." These statements confuse the writer's mental image of an individual who (that writer thinks) represents a whole nation with the real people of that nation. This mental image is a stereotype. The intellectual climate has changed, and most educated speakers of English don't approve of blatant racial or national stereotyping now. It is still acceptable to say "The unicorn is a mythical beast," but "The Italian is a good cook" implies something undesirable about the speaker's attitude if the speaker means all Italians.