‘A President Biden’

It’s not unusual for a name to be preceded by an indefinite article in English, as in this example:

These are troubling times, but a President Barack Obama could handle them.

However, grammatically, the construction is odd because we combine the indefinite article a with the definite expression President Barack Obama, so you would expect this to lead to a semantic clash of sorts. However, it doesn’t . We interpret the phrase a President Barack Obama to mean ‘a person like President Barack Obama’.

But what about the following example, which I came across in a newspaper:

More specifically, a President Biden would confirm that a candidate who is unexciting but capable and conspicuously decent can win – especially during a crisis. (The Guardian, 17/10/20)

Here, as a reader, you would initially try to interpret this phrase in the same way as above, namely as ‘a person like President Biden’. But that doesn’t quite work when you realise that if the modalised would confirm is actualised after Biden’s election, the phrase a President Biden is no longer appropriate, as he will then be President Biden. The very fact that he has become President then confirms (an unmodalised verb) that an unexciting candidate can win elections. The writer could not have used the phrase President Biden in his text, as that expression carries the presupposition that he has already been elected.

So what’s going on here? I think that the writer of the Guardian sentence is trying to combine two authorial perspectives: the current perspective of the writer before the US elections (modalised, because we can’t be sure what will happen), and the perspective he will have after Biden’s election (unmodalised because it will be a fact).


4 thoughts on “‘A President Biden’

  1. Thanks for this. It’s a great example. I have a different reading of it, which is that ‘A President Biden’ stands for something like ‘The existence of . . .’ or ‘The election of . . .’ so it has a kind of conditional reading and that’s what makes _would_ work here. For me, if it had the ‘a person like . . .’ reading, I’d still use _would_


  2. Thanks, Billy. Yes, I see the reading ‘the existence of…’ Interesting how a grammatically simple noun phrase actually turns out to be quite complex semantically. Would Relevance Theory have anything to say about this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it is fascinating that we do things like this and I definitely think relevance theory (or another pragmatic theory) would have something to say about it. It’s a good example of how syntax, semantics and pragmatics are all involved in explaining language and should interact in explaining particular forms and usage B–)


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