It is often not clear whether to use the definite article when a personal name is used.

Tolstoy's books. — It is John's property. — Somewhere in Steinbeck country.


The Poincare conjecture. — The Higgs boson. — The Locke's argument.

I was told that you use the when it is a title for something. Anyway a more rigorous explanation is needed. Even [the?] Murphy's Grammar doesn't explain this usage.

  • Not a rigorous explanation, but the's in the Poincare's conjecture, the Higgs boson, and the Locke's argument are for conjecture, boson, and argument. The use of the for these words are basically the same to the use of the in general, i.e. to be specific about which conjecture, which boson, and which argument. (Compare: we are not very specific about which book or which property in Tolstoy's books or John's property) Dec 11, 2013 at 8:50
  • @DamkerngT.: But the books written by Tolstoy is an exact group of books, not all books in general, why am I not supposed to say "The Tolstoy's books." ?
    – mosceo
    Dec 11, 2013 at 8:53
  • I suppose that Tolstoy must have written many books, and when someone says Tolstoy's books, she simply is talking about books in general, which happened to be written by Tolstoy. Actually, I believe that she can even say a Tolstoy's book too, if she wants to refer to some (but not sure which one) book written by Tolstoy. Dec 11, 2013 at 8:59
  • I just got an idea, potentially a very useful one. To see if you really need to use the, try replacing the with some, if the meaning doesn't change, it means that you don't need (and shouldn't use?) that the. For example, I read some Tolstoy's books makes sense, but she studies some Poincare's conjecture doesn't. Dec 11, 2013 at 9:04
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    It's not a question of exact group versus not exact group, but rather of the rule that we do not use an article with a proper name. If I say, "I gave the book to Bob Smith", "Bob Smith" is a very exact group -- one specific person -- but I still don't use "the" because of the proper name rule. But as I say in my answer below, when a proper name is used as an adjective, without a possessive, it loses this "special exemption" from needing an article. I can see how this rule may be confusing to people learning English as a second language. All I can say is, that's the convention.
    – Jay
    Dec 11, 2013 at 18:28

2 Answers 2


The articles the and a(n) are determinatives, words which mainly function as determiners:

Thedeterminative : determiner Poincarenoun : attributive conjecturenoun : head
Thedeterminative : determiner Higgsnoun : attributive bosonnoun : head

Each of these noun phrases has:

  1. A determinative functioning as a determiner: the.
  2. A proper noun functioning attributively: Poincare, Higgs.
  3. A noun functioning as head: conjecture, boson.

But the determiner slot can also be filled by a genitive noun phrase:

Locke'sgenitive noun : determiner argumentnoun : head
Tolstoy'sgenitive noun : determiner booksnoun : head
John'sgenitive noun : determiner propertynoun : head

There's nothing in attributive position, although we could put something there, like an adjective:

Locke'sgenitive noun : determiner brilliantadjective : attributive argumentnoun : head
Tolstoy'sgenitive noun : determiner longestadjective : attributive booksnoun : head
John'sgenitive noun : determiner stolenadjective : attributive propertynoun : head

And we could put determinatives in the determiner slot, if we wanted:

adeterminative : determiner brilliantadjective : attributive argumentnoun : head
thedeterminative : determiner longestadjective : attributive booksnoun : head
determinative : determiner stolenadjective : attributive propertynoun : head

In the last example, the determiner slot can't be filled by a or the because property isn't countable in this sense. If you prefer, you could say it's filled by a "zero article", which would then be a type of determinative; I've marked this with the ∅ symbol.

What's important here is that we can't fill the determiner slot with two different things at the same time. Generally speaking, you can fill the determiner slot with a determinative or a genitive noun phrase, but not with both at the same time. Your example *"the Locke's argument" is ungrammatical for this reason.

In your last example, the determiner slot is empty. It can't be filled by an article:

determinative : determiner Steinbecknoun : attributive countrynoun : head

That's because country in this sense is uncountable. This is sense 4 in Macmillan, "an area that is known for a particular product, activity, person, etc.", which includes the following example:

East of here is mostly [ farming country ].

A non-genitive noun like farming generally can't fill the determiner slot. It's being used attributively, much like an adjective:

determinative : determiner farmingnoun : attributive countrynoun : head

But the determiner slot can be filled:

America'sgenitive noun : determiner winenoun : attributive countrynoun : head

Just not by an article.

  • The only thing that I still doubt is: is it wrong if I say "Steinbeck's Country". (It's hard for me sometimes to decide which form to use, with-'s or without-'s, or to know when both forms are acceptable.) Dec 20, 2013 at 17:00
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    @DamkerngT. It's not wrong grammatically (Steinbeck's as genitive NP is a determiner, Country is head noun, and there's nothing in attributive position), but I'm not sure if Steinbeck had a country, let alone a capitalized one. The sense of country referred to in the question and this answer is modified attributively, so the non-genitive version would be appropriate if that's the meaning you intended.
    – user230
    Dec 20, 2013 at 17:01
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    I think hunter's answer is good, but having clear examples with brief discussion case by case is usually better for learners. Dec 20, 2013 at 17:07

Your data is erroneous.

The Poincare's conjecture. — The Higgs boson. — The Locke's argument.

Of these, only The Higgs boson is grammatical, and that's because his name is Higgs (it's not Higg's boson).

We say "The Poincare conjecture" because there is one specific conjecture due to Poincare that is specifically famous and this is the name of it. We can also say "Poincare's conjecture." If I said that to a friend, she would probably say "wait, do you mean THE Poincare conjecture, or is there some other one?"

For instance, I could say "Poincare's conjecture -- not the famous one about simply connected manifolds -- but another one, about..."

This is common in academia, where ideas are named after people. (I've never heard of the Locke argument but I imagine it's similar.)

Note that saying "The (possessive pronoun or phrase ending in 's) (noun)" is always wrong, not just prescriptively wrong, but something no native English speaker would say.

  • 2
    Yes. We do not use "the" with a possessive. We do use "the" when a person's name is used as an adjective but not as a possessive. Thus, "I read Tolstoy's books" but "I read the Tolstoy books". "Smith's family will also be coming" but "The Smith family will also be coming". Etc.
    – Jay
    Dec 11, 2013 at 18:23

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