Remembering Neil Armstrong and his "one small step"

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Since the death of Neil Armstrong on Saturday, many remembrances have told the story about his famously flubbed first words on the moon. From Ian Crouch on The New Yorker's News Desk blog:

When the lunar module, named the Eagle, touched down, following moments of radio silence that terrified the folks back in mission control, he relayed: “Houston: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Later, as he made his way out of the lunar module (or LM), he described his progress in banal terms that, because of where they were coming from and what they conveyed, rose to the level of magic: “I’m going to step off the LM now.” And then he issued what is among the most famous proclamations of the last century—a jubilant counterbalance to F.D.R.’s “Day of Infamy” speech and a capstone to J.F.K.’s declaration that “we choose to go to the moon”—a statement that Armstrong had composed and prepared just hours earlier, in between the more pressing business of operating space equipment, according to Armstrong’s biographer, James Hansen: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

In the wake of Armstrong’s death, there may be some discrepancy in how the phrase will be rendered, just as in the ensuing years, there has been controversy as to what exactly Armstrong said as he lighted out from the ladder, becoming the first member of mankind to stand on a celestial body other than earth. It’s been good fodder for years to note that the famous quotation, beamed to a significant fraction of the world’s population in real time, is just a bit off. “Man” and “mankind” are synonymous in Armstrong’s formulation, since he’s missing the modifier “a” in front of “man” to draw the distinction. Armstrong would later claim that he said the “a,” and that it got lost, as it were, in transmission. (Linguists and scientists have argued both sides.) Regardless, he said that he preferred to see it written with the “a” in parenthesis, a wish that, both while he was living and now that he is gone, it only seems fair to honor.

The link given by Crouch is to an Oct. 3, 2006 Language Log post by David Beaver. Here is the complete archive of LL posts related to Armstrong and his missing determiner:


  1. bks said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    If Ian Crouch wants to honor Armstrong's request that "a" be in parentheses, why is it in brackets?


  2. Neil said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    I've always wondered why it particularly matters. Before the debate surrounding the article, I'd always assumed that "for man" was intended to mean something like "for mankind as exemplified by this man", and that there was indeed a slight contrast between "man" and "mankind". Translations in other languages such as French "l'homme" ~ "l'humanité" seemed to make a similar interpretation. If anything, with the "a" added, the sentence loses balance.

  3. Adrian Morgan said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    A myth that I used to hear on the Internet a lot ten to fifteen years ago, but not so much now, is the myth that Armstrong's "one small step" line was not original to him, but was scripted by NASA.

    I believe the myth is largely based on assumptions people have about how government organisations work. To people with certain prejudices, it seems implausible that NASA would allow a mere astronaut to take such an important PR moment into their own hands.

    Also, some people assume that when we are told Armstrong "fluffed his line" (left out the "a"), this implies his line was scripted by someone other than himself. For some reason, these people fail to understand that the phrase "fluffed his line" applies just as well when the author and the speaker are the same person as when they are not.

    For my part, I had always assumed (correctly) that it was original to Armstrong. Then people on the Internet told me it was scripted by NASA, and I had no choice but to bow to their (considerable) confidence. Then, years later, I felt vindicated when I found out I was right all along.

  4. Jeroen Mostert said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    @Neil: I'm pretty sure there's no way to interpret "a small step for man" that way, in regular English speech. The "a" really needs to be there.

    And yes, other languages don't use the equivalent of "man" to mean "all of humanity". That's a peculiarity of English, but "a small step for man" can't be read any other way than as applying to the whole of humanity without any particular individual in mind, which is obviously not what Armstrong intended.

    Of course, what Armstrong actually flubbed was "for". He meant to say "but": "it's one small step but man, one giant leap for mankind!"

  5. JMM said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 11:43 am

    I've always interpreted as meaning: any human (gender, not important) would find the step off this ladder rung easy, but it's still a giant leap for all of us. The 'a' detracts for the feeling of universality.

    But even without that, it was a small step for man(kind); we have a long, long way yet to go, and aren't making too many strides lately, but every journey begins with a giant leap.

  6. Jonathon said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 11:58 am

    I'm not seeing how the "a" detracts from the universality of the statement. Without the "a", "man" is a mass noun meaning "mankind" or "humanity", so the contrast between the two halves of the statement is lost. The indefinite singular count noun phrase "a man" is what would normally be interpreted as meaning "any human".

    [(myl) Whether or not that's true, it's not how I (and I think most people) interpret the phase. We understand it as "One small step for me, Neil Armstrong, a particular man; a giant leap for the species that I represent".]

  7. JMM said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    But, Jonathon, I don't see the contrast (a difference in stress, but not a contrast).

    Before I heard discussions of this, I always saw the statement as a recognition of the accomplishment as belonging to everyone, not simply to the chosen representative actually making the motion. I'm not really ready to take any credit, though I was up very late and watching the TV when he said it, but I appreciate the sentiment, and I do think it was a mass effort that resulted in the accomplishment.

    This interpretation goes along with other things I've heard about Armstrong too, and I'm a bit disappointed that he wanted to rewrite the statement.

  8. Kylopod said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

    What most fascinated me as a kid was how the quote got passed around for so long without anyone seeming to notice it didn't make any sense. It was as if people didn't think they had to pay attention to what the quote was saying as long it had a grandiose "feel." It could be part of the same process that leads to idioms that make no literal sense (e.g. "head over heels"). People just file it away in their mind as "the grandiose thing Neil Armstrong said about mankind."

    [(myl) I don't think this is true. I heard the event on TV in 1969, and was completely baffled by what Armstrong seemed to say ("A small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind? WTF?") until someone pointed out to me that he had probably left out an "a". Maybe the main-stream media was as clueless then as it often is today — I don't recall hearing or reading any discussion of this issue at the time, and I haven't checked the news archives for contemporary comment — but I can tell you that ordinary people certainly noticed the apparent incoherence and talked about it.]

  9. jan said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    I wonder how the spectrogram would compare with someone saying the name of the capital of Jordan, Amman?
    Suppose Amman became the site of a major international institution, which results in Amman eventually becoming a metropolis–one small step for Amman, one giant leap for mankind.

  10. quixote said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    Besides the "a," another syllable would have made a big difference. "One small step for a man, one giant leap for humankind."

    It might have been inconceivable back in the Neolithic when Armstrong went to the moon, but why isn't it mentioned now?

  11. Rebecca said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    While I do think the intended meaning would require the missing "a", I don't find it all that incoherent as is.

    One possible reading is that what is, in fact, just the next logical and, relatively, small step in a long process of research and engineering, represents a major cognitive leap in how we view ourselves in our scientific history. The moments before and after a human stood on another rock in space seems like crossing a big divide. But the step of landing the module was incremental. In both cases, the acheivements were by/for humanity as a whole, not an individual man. So this possible reading is just saying that a step can be, for humankind, both incremental and revolutionary at the same time.

  12. Nathan said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

    @jan The second vowel in "Amman" is /ɑ/, not /æ/.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    Jonathan: The indefinite singular count noun phrase "a man" is what would normally be interpreted as meaning "any human".

    Really? Not by me. "a man" refers to an adult male human.

  14. Lazar Taxon said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    @Ellen K.: In common speech, yes, but there's substantial precedent in elevated or poetic speech for "man" to mean a human being – as when it's used to translate the Latin "homo".

  15. Cirret said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

    @Ellen K: Others differ. In my idiolect, "man" means primarily a human being, and secondarily – when the context requires a distinction – an adult male human being. I try to avoid saying "man" because I am aware it confuses some people.

  16. Andy Averill said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    "A man" can mean "a human being" in some contexts, perhaps in "a man's a man for a' that". But if Neil Armstrong had said "that's one small step for a man", he clearly would have meant "for a male human being", ie, himself.

    Incidentally, I just re-listened to his remark on Youtube, and there's no way he could have said "a man". There just isn't any gap between "for" and "man".

  17. Ellen K. said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    @Lazar and Cirret,

    Jonathan said "normally". Not "sometimes", not "in some contexts", not "in elevated or poetic speech" but "normally". I don't question that the word gets used that way. But I do question the idea that it's normally interpreted as "any human being". I don't think so.

  18. Nick Lamb said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

    Ellen, Jonathan wrote "normally" but he did so specifically in the context of this speech. I think "a man" is normally interpreted as "any human being" in the context of this speech, although it's interesting that some contributors to this thread appear to think Armstrong was delusional and believed that stepping off a ladder was a feat only possible specifically for _adult male_ humans and not for, say, women.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

    Perhaps, Nick, the contributors in question appear to you to think that because you are misunderstanding them. None appear to think that that I can see.

  20. David Morris said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 10:43 pm

    If he'd said "one man", he might have avoided all of this bother. BTW, does anyone know what Aldrin said a short time later?

    I quibble with references to Armstrong being "the first man on the moon". The Eagle landed once with both Armstrong and Aldrin on it. Armstrong was undoubtedly the first man to walk on it. The famous headline was "Men walk on moon".

  21. Matt said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

    Let's just hope that the first person to set foot on Mars nails this down more tightly. Something like "p(current speaker) AND NOT P(species of current speaker) WHERE p(x) = 'x's most recent and relevant act of stepping (physical or metaphorical) was small'" ought to do it.

  22. Jeroen Mostert said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 12:05 am

    @David: "it's one small step for one man" is decidedly more clumsy than "it's one small step for a man". And "it's a small step for one man" would not have meshed with the rest of the quote: emphasizing "one" rather spoils "one giant leap for mankind".

    Look, we can argue about what he ought to have said until men walk on the moon, but…

  23. Army1987 said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 4:24 am

    @Neil: The translation in Italian did put an indefinite article before the word for man, and @Jeroen Mostert: Italian does use that word to mean ‘humanity’ (although when it does it's preceded by the definite article).

  24. Army1987 said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 4:28 am

    And yeah, I interpret it as myl says in Jonathon's comment.

  25. maidhc said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 4:29 am

    Hearing this news made me think of Roger McGuinn's song "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins"

    Hearing the phrase "gave the go" made me wonder how many words or idioms came into common usage as a result of the publicity given to the US space program. I thought of a few examples some years ago, but now I can't recall them.

    I remember looking up at the moon then. Those were optimistic times.

    I remember speculating about what he was going to say. My friends and I were hoping it would be "It is made of green cheese!". But I have to admit the "one small step" line was much better.

    Not many explorers have had their first words recorded. John Batman's "this will be the place for a village" was one, but we don't know that that was the first thing he said. Most of them were too busy to work on memorable sayings, I suppose.

  26. Army1987 said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 5:45 am


    It seems to me that the gender-neutral usage of man was common until the late 1960s but it's very rare now. The default word for ‘any human’ nowadays is person (except in contexts where you want to distinguish them from non-human self-aware beings, e.g. theology, fantasy/science fiction, etc.). (Whenever I have to translate a Latin quotation to English, I invariably use person for homo and man for vir.)

  27. Graeme said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 6:20 am

    Forget nerves, conspiracy or technology. Isn't there a simpler psychological explanation: who ever refers to themself as 'a man'?

    He penned something cute: poetically symmetrical and high-minded.

    But the more natural (think of the setting – a ladder a few rungs short of a truly new world) enunciation would have been 'that's one small step for me, one giant leap for everybody'.

    Anyone in such a bewildering but concrete/unique situation might baulk at the unnatural 'a man',

  28. Rob said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    Listening to the recording of that famous line, it always sounds to me as if Neil realised halfway through the line that he'd fluffed it. There's a distinct pause after "That's one small step for man" and then he rushes through the second half of the sentence, trailing off almost apologetically.

    But he maintained that he didn't think he'd missed the "a", and only realised he had when he heard the tape, so that weakens my theory somewhat!

  29. Acilius said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    My favorite variation on Armstrong's statement was the first comment Captain Pete Conrad made when he set foot on the lunar surface as commander of Apollo 12. "Whoopee! Man, that may been a small one for Neil, but that was a long one for me."

  30. languagehat said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    But he maintained that he didn't think he'd missed the "a", and only realised he had when he heard the tape, so that weakens my theory somewhat!

    You can't trust people's memories; I realized that based on self-observation long ago, and everything science has learned in studying memory and the mind confirms it.

    The comments here claiming that it made good sense without the "a" amuse me — people have a virtually infinite capacity for finding meaning where there is no apparent ground for it (cf. people who think "gray" is different from "grey").

  31. Jonathon said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    Ellen K.: Forgive me for my poor wording. I was responding to JMM's post about how "man" (without the "a") meant "any human". As Nick Lamb said, I was writing specifically in context of Armstrong's line. What I really meant is that without the article (leaving aside the issue of sexist language for the moment), "man" does not and cannot mean "any human". You need an article to make it singular and indefinite. Otherwise it's a mass noun meaning "humanity". I did not mean that "a man" is normally interpreted to mean "any human", though I think you could argue that that was the intended meaning back when Armstrong said it. As Army1987 said, the gender-neutral use of "man" was still common in the 1960s.

    And by the way, my name is Jonathon, not Jonathan.

  32. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    I had just out of high school when the landing was broadcast and Neil Armstrong made his statement. I can't remember what I thought about the quote at the time. This discussion highlights the fact that I never analyzed the language in the quote, I just continued to react to Armstrong's words with emotion.

    Although I may not have noticed the lack of an article, I did feel that "man" was a smaller subset of "mankind."

    I have interpreted his statement as a contrast between physical effort it took to make an idea reality, as opposed to a goal many faithful believers supported and saw as a turning point in life as we knew it. "Here's the physical step man is taking onto the surface of the moon after doing all this research and manufacturing and preparation, and it represents a major triumph in human history that all people, even those who are not here on the moon, can be proud of."

    Or, "I've achieved something for my group, but we can't take exclusive credit for such a historic moment."

    A few years ago I met an Eastern European man who assured me that the whole moonwalk was cooked up in a television studio. He left his country to settle in the U.S., and it seemed to me that his childhood in a country in the Soviet bloc had predisposed him to reject the moonwalk. I wonder what he's thinking now — that that conspirator Armstrong is never going to come clean? How sad.

  33. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

    Oops. I "had just graduated" or "was just out of high school" when the landing was broadcast…

  34. Brad Daniels said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    I personally believe that he actually did say "a man", but the video from the Silence was inserted at that point in the recording, making it so that no one can remember hearing it.

    [Doctor Who reference, in case the above makes no sense to you.]

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

    While Armstrong may have come up with the line himself while en route and w/o oversight or script-doctoring from Houston, presumably its resemblance to the wording on the plaque on the LEM which must have resulted from some larger drafting-and-consultation process ("HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.") is not coincidental insofar as it makes the same individual(s)-on-behalf-of-whole-species point. "Men" of course does not need an article to clarify that in context it means particular individual men as opposed to men-in-general.

    Note also the perhaps different semantics of anarthrous "man" in the last words spoken while still on the lunar surface by the last individual man to have stood there to date (Eugene Cernan): "I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17." I expect that I was not alone in believing at the time that "not too long" could not possibly stretch out to as long as almost 40 years and counting. In terms of the genericity of "man" in the relevant variety of English at the relevant time, while NASA's astronauts as of that point had been exclusively male (although the Soviets had already had one female cosmonaut), by the time Apollo 17 reached the moon, we had already sent off into space the first of the "Pioneer plaques" depicting for the information of potential future extraerrestrial viewers both the vir and femina models of homo sapiens.

  36. Breffni said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 12:20 pm


    @jan The second vowel in "Amman" is /ɑ/, not /æ/.

    As usual with these things, that depends on your dialect. In Irish English, 'Amman' and 'a man' are indeed homophones, with the second vowel realised as [a:] (in my case anyway). I think the same would be true of some English dialects.

  37. Nathan Myers said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 1:19 am

    I was 7 when heard it, live, and thought it odd then, and that nobody else seemed to notice.

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