I went over to Wikipedia earlier this evening, hoping to find out what major University of Florida football quarterback Tim Tebow was graduating in. I didn’t find that out, but I did run across this sentence there:
One of the reasons he chose Florida was because of Meyer’s spread option offense, an offense for which Tebow was deemed a prototypical quarterback.
Given that the spread option offense has existed since the 1920s, it seems unlikely that Tebow was around then to serve as the prototype of a quarterback to run it. So I changed that to read:
One of the reasons he chose Florida was because of Meyer’s spread option offense, an offense for which Tebow was deemed an archetypal quarterback.
and left this explanation for others editing the page:
prototype=first of kind or preliminary; archetype=instance most indicative of the type
Before committing that change, I did look to see if I could get the Gainesville Sun article that was referenced for that sentence. I had no joy on that, but Google indicates that sports writers seem to have this as a common confusion over the difference in the terms.
Results 1 – 10 of about 156,000 for tebow prototypical
Results 1 – 10 of about 746,000 for football prototypical
I’m sure some of those are legitimate uses of “prototypical”, but my sense from looking over a small sample is that most are not.
Update: I found Tebow’s major; it is “Family, Youth and Community Sciences” in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The web page says that the program is an applied social science.
Further update: I’ve found at least one source that defines “prototype” as “a standard or typical example”. That would make sense of a lot more of the usage I see in sports writing, but would still leave out those that are trying to communicate a sense of someone being exceptional in performance. It is certainly out of place in trying to use it in description of Tebow.