4

I wonder whether using the article 'the' is proper putting before a proper noun. I have heard this from many especially when they react with utter surprise.

For instance,

"Hey, do you know, while coming back from Bangkok to Mumbai whom did I meet in flight?"
"Nope, enlighten me!"
"Bill Gates!"
"What? You mean the Bill Gates"?, "Yes, the Bill Gates."

Now the question -

What criteria set the rule of using the article 'the' for a proper noun? If, like in any other case, the is to state the one and only, may we use the to describe you and me as well who are not celebrities but common persons?

  • 1
    +1 for flying together with Bill Gates from Bangkok to Mumbai. :) – Damkerng T. Jan 7 '14 at 7:50
5

When you use a proper noun as though it were a common noun, you're implying that there is a set of entities referred to by that name.

Are you the Bill Gates?
[Out of the set of people named Bill Gates, are you the one listeners would typically be familiar with?]

No, I'm some other Bill Gates. I'm a plumber who lives in Brooklyn.
[Although my name is Bill Gates, I am not the Bill Gates listeners would typically be familiar with.]

In this example, there's a set of one or more people named Bill Gates. Since the definite article the implies the listener can identify what the noun phrase it marks refers to, the Bill Gates refers to, out of the set of all people named Bill Gates, the one with which the listener is likely to be familiar.

The determiner need not be the definite article. We could instead talk about the many John Smiths of the world, implying a set but not identifying any individual member of that set.

But it gets more interesting. Let's take a look at a more figurative example:

This painting of a young Rembrandt holding up a dead bird as though he were the hunter has troubled art scholars for years.

Here, the indefinite article a implies that this is one of many Rembrandts. But the set here exists only figuratively, dividing the painter into multiple entities according to age:

  • a young Rembrandt [Rembrandt, the painter, when he was young]
  • an aging Rembrandt [Rembrandt, the painter, when he was older]

Literally speaking, the set does not exist. But we can nonetheless speak as though it does.

And the same grammar can be used figuratively to describe traits other than age. In this question, we can see Dudley divided figuratively according to behavior or personality:

Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work, and Mrs. Dursley gossiped away happily as she wrestled a screaming Dudley into his high chair.

Here, Dudley is treated as though it were a common noun, signaling a set of Dudleys. Although we only know of one member of this set, we could postulate more:

  • a screaming Dudley [Dudley while he was screaming]
  • a pacified Dudley [Dudley after his parents have calmed him down]

The figurative set of Dudleys allows us to express an attribute Dudley possesses (belligerence),
just as the set of Rembrandts allows us to express an attribute Rembrandt possesses (youth).

The same mechanism works more literally for the Bill Gates or the many John Smiths, since the sets of one or more people named Bill Gates and John Smith exist in reality. But grammatically, whether it's literal or figurative, it works the same way:

When you treat a proper noun as though it were a common noun, you imply that there is a set of entities referred to by that name.

  • 1
    To my mind, the use of "a young Rembrandt" or "a screaming Dudley" doesn't really imply a set of Rembrandts or Dudleys, but rather the opposite: if a mother was described as putting Screaming Dudley into a highchair and taking Quiet Dudley to a movie, such description would identify two different individuals named Dudley [one of whom was always screaming, and one of whom was always quiet]. By contrast, if she acts upon a screaming Dudley and a quiet Dudley, the use of the article would help separate the adjective from the name. – supercat Mar 24 '14 at 16:29
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Articles are not generally used with personal names in English.

The article here does serve its usual purpose of referring to a specific example: the speaker met the famous person known as Bill Gates, as opposed to any of the hundreds of ordinary people who share that name. But "the Bill Gates" is intoned differently from "the Bill Gates," with particular stress on the the; we are emphasizing the particularity of this Bill Gates, because we expect the mention of this particular Bill Gates to evoke some kind of special reaction. Because this is a vocalized emphasis, moreover, it is often set apart with italics or some other typographic marker when written.

It need not be a celebrity. It could simply someone notable to the audience, and it could be used in a mocking or sarcastic tone instead of a starstruck one: John Smith is coming to the morning meeting? The John Smith? His majesty the regional manager? But indeed, this usage is not restricted to articles or to proper nouns, either.

"We've tried everything to get my nephew to go to sleep. I think it's time to break out the book."

"Which book?"

"The book."

The above suggests that there is some particular book known to the speaker that will be a reliable aid. Perhaps it is a favorite storybook, or perhaps it is the only book in the house, but it is in any case it is "the book" and not merely "the book." The response to "Which book?" could just have easily be This book or Any book.

Again, this is a feature of spoken English. We would not ordinarily encounter this structure in written English, except when reproducing a conversation, and would use a parenthetical or simply add modifiers to convey the same sense.

On my flight from Bangkok to Mumbai, I met Bill Gates-- the famous Bill Gates. Ironically, he was drinking apple juice.

  • Yes, but we would do this even if there were only one person in the universe with that name who also happens to be famous. Are you the Qhfyjf Fuknedghu? We can also use the definite article in other contexts, without stressing the, such as 'I will come over at once,' said the happy Qhfyjf Fuknedghu (or the happy Bill Gates). – GoDucks Jan 5 '16 at 17:00
1

We will use the definite article in front of any person's name to distinguish one individual from a group:

- Do you know Peter?
- The one with a dog?
- Oh, no the Peter I mean hates dogs.

Your example is just a variant, except there no other qualification or explanation is necessary because we are talking about a famous person and just saying his name is enough to distinguish him from the other Bill Gates in the world.

We will use the definite article in front of of a family’s surname when talking about the whole family :
- The Greens who live in my street.

0

If there is only one person in the universe with a particular name, say Qhfyjf Fuknedghu, you could still ask him if he is the Qhfyjf Fuknedghu.

Here we are not differentiating him from some other Qhfyjf Fuknedghu (because there is no other one) but merely commenting on his special status. Therefore I don't think the whole 'set of entities' idea works in this case. And since it does not work in this case, I'm not sure it works in the the Bill Gates case either.

Another example usage is

"I will come over at once," said the happy Qhfyjf Fuknedghu.

Here, I can see that we are treating a name as a common noun (although we are certainly not 'converting' a proper noun into a common noun). But here, the phrase the Qhfyjf Fuknedghu is again not singling out Qhfyjf Fuknedghu from some set of people named 'Qhfyjf Fuknedghu' because there is only one person in this set.

But certainly there can be different manifestations or appearances of Qhfyjf Fuknedghu. He can be happy, sad, laughing, crying, enthusiastic, depressed, lively, indeed even dead. So we could say there is a set of possible manifestations or appearances of even the one and only Qhfyjf Fuknedghu.

I think with a there is an indication that this is a temporary manifestation (except perhaps for dead, but then grammar runs into metaphysics or philosophy). This idea of temporarity probably comes from the indefiniteness of the indefinite article. And, by the way, we can also refer to a so-called one of a kind common noun using a (not the) in this same manner:

There is a full moon out tonight.

Whereas ...said the happy Qhfyjf Fuknedghu makes a definite reference, and perhaps does not signal a temporary status (or as temporary a status) as a happy Qhfyjf Fuknedghu does.

How this differs from no article (the zero article?) ...said happy Qhfyjf Fuknedghu seems to be that this Qhfyjf Fuknedghu is characteristically happy.

-1

I have a different answer to a slightly different take on the question, best illustrated by an example: "Why do we say 'NBC' but 'the CIA'? Why use 'the' for one organization but not the other?" And my answer is that nobody knows; it seems to be completely arbitrary.

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