The Definite Return of Neil’s Indefinite Article

As the story goes, Neil Armstrong is sure that he said “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” But we’ve got audio tapes, and we can’t hear the “a” before “man,” which means that his statement is syntactically odd.

Good news everyone. They found the missing “a.” He really DID say it, but the mics didn’t pick it up. Computer analysis of the recording shows where the missing indefinite article dropped out. Or something like that.

At any rate, now we can sleep easy. (Well… maybe not until they find those lost lunar landing video tapes.)

22 thoughts on “The Definite Return of Neil’s Indefinite Article”

  1. I read that article. I hope that it’s true, but I’m skeptical. I’d like to read something with a bit more detail about the analysis.

    You mean in ALL this time no forensics/digital signal processing people have worked on the recording, trying to find where the missing “a” went? And then some guy uses off the shelf software and a sound file downloaded off the NASA web page to find the missing “a”?

    I’m not saying it’s impossible… just that the needle on my credulitymeter is twitching.

    1. Off-the-shelf stuff now is better than professional-grade stuff from 1969. And no, I can’t see anyone making a priority of it in the intervening time. When people scream that the entire program was a boondoggle and a waste, can you imagine the field day they’d have about “spending our tax money one looking for one letter”?

      1. Going to the moon wasn’t a boondoggle or a waste, but it was a mistake.

        We should have been going to the moon to STAY, rather than visit. We should have spent time and money building infrastructure, rather than seeing how far we could throw spacemen one rocket at a time.

        Hopefully the next push (throwing spacemen at Mars) will be done right, and we’ll put infrastructure in place. The only way to get spacemen that far is for their ship to start from NEO or L1/L2 space stations, and THAT means factories in orbit, and THAT means real infrastructure.

  2. I thought they’d found the tapes? They’d been borrowed by a recording company for an abortive music video of Dark Side of the Moon.
    Can’t for the life of me remember where I read that.

  3. I always heard the ‘a’ myself – the timing was wrong for it to be missing. But then, that’s merely my brain interpolating the correct sound into a very noisy signal.

    It’s nice to see that software has caught up with my brain. Now, I just need my brain to catch up with my software.

    1. Nice link. But as the language log blogger himself states, he hasn’t seen the original research either — he just did his own. Admittedly, he did a good job, but his results are inconclusive, and he says so himself.

  4. I never heard the “a” but I didn’t find anything wrong with the sentance. Of course, I was 6 years old and my grammar has never been faultless… and not having found anything particularly wrong with it the first time I heard it (July 1969), I never thought about it.

  5. Personally, given the noise and static on the connection (1969 technology across a distance of a quarter of a million miles, remember), I’ve always been willing to take Neil Armstrong’s word for it that he said “for a man”. Maybe he slurred it a little — “one giant step f’ra man”, maybe it was a little unclear due to the exertion of climbing down a ladder and jumping (not stepping) down to the lunar surface in an almost-rigid space suit, but if Neil says he said it and the mic didn’t pick it up, then as far as I’m concerned, he said it.

  6. Syntactically odd or not, I think it scans better without the ‘a’ in it. Plus it feels less specific without the a, like Armstrong was saying any man would do for that small step, not A man, but just man. I could just be crazy.

      1. Re: Mmm.

        Maybe I saw to many educational videos in gradeschool where they referred to mankind as man a lot of times.

        “Once man had discovered fire, it was only a matter of time before he lost his body hair because it was a fire hazard.” (Okay, they didn’t really say that, but the stuff taught in grade school back then is pretty out of date!)

        If the ‘a’ is restored, I would say an ‘all’ would be required to make it scan as nicely. “One small step for a man, one giant leap for all mankind.”

        1. ARGH.

          Sorry—my brain needs a defrag. I managed to completely drop the context of the quote there, making my version nonsensical.

          The man==mankind thing is, of course, why it’s fairly nonsensical without the “a”.

          1. Re: ARGH.


            There are two ways to take Armstrong’s quote and make it more meaningful:

            One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.

            One small step for man, one giant leap for [all] mankind.

            The first one is better.

          2. Re: ARGH.

            I understand the arguments for ‘a’ being in there. But like “Ich bin ein Berliner” sometimes being completely linguistically correct shouldn’t matter.

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