When proper nouns describe a period in life, they frequently take the definite article:

"...what the young Einstein brought to the scientific facts was..."

"The Napoleon after Waterloo was nevermore the Napoleon of Austerlitz."

"The Africa of old doesn't exist anymore."

Sometimes, however, such nouns don't take articles:

"What kinds of things did colonial children, like young George Washington, do for fun?"

"... few delve into the personality of young Washington during his first experiences as a military leader."

"Yet young Einstein also made contributions to early quantum theory of such importance — ..." etc.

What is the difference between these two usages? How can one tell when not to use "the" with such proper nouns?

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    To my native-born American ear, all these phrases sound better with the. Jan 18, 2020 at 15:45
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    Doesn't this answer your question? If so, I think this is a duplicate. Jan 23, 2020 at 18:27
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    There is no doubt at all since there is only one of them. All of them should have a the in formal writing.
    – Lambie
    Jan 23, 2020 at 20:03

5 Answers 5


Whether or not you use articles isn't related to the words in a sentence, but other factors.

The young Einstein versus just saying young Einstein hints to the possibility of there being a need to for the listener/reader to understand:

  • there's multiple "Einsteins"

  • that the speaker/writer expects the listener/reader to know which one.

You're probably now saying: but there isn't multiple Einsteins. There's just one

However, if by Einstein we really mean "account of Einstein as given in a particular work of literature", or "Einstein as described and known from this particular historical perspective", then there very well could be.

Also, the speaker/writer could be thinking of two Einsteins at once according to his/her point of view - Einstein when young, and Einstein when old - and because of this, will use the - and this would hint to you that earlier or later in the conversation "another" Einstein is possible or will be talked about.

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    I see no justification at all for not using the determiner.
    – Lambie
    Jan 23, 2020 at 20:04

Generally you should not use the for names and places which is why could say (more on that here)

"...what young Einstein brought to the scientific facts was..."

In case of your second and third sentence however you specify that is is not only 'Napoleon' but 'the Napoleon after Waterloo [...]' which means that a the is required.


In daily colloquial usage, the meaning in either usage does not differ much.

However, in a literary sense, “the” can be used to emphasise the subject in the sentence.

The Napoleon after Waterloo was nevermore the Napoleon of Austerlitz.

Firstly, the use of “the” in this sentence indicates that the person in question is Napoleon Bonaparte, the famous military general, and not any other man named “Napoleon” who happened to be from Waterloo or Austerlitz. Secondly, “the” could also be used so as to imply the ideas and possibly zeitgeist brought to Europe by Napoleon; it isn’t just a surface level reference to him.

The Africa of Old doesn’t exist anymore.

“The Africa of Old” might well refer to the way of life which the natives enjoyed and the cultures which were present before the European invasion of the continent. Many of these cultural differences were deemed “old” by Europeans and thus replaced by “new” Western customs.

The following might be wrong but I have seen similar cases as such.

What young Einstein brought to the scientific facts was....

To me, the lack of “the” makes the sentence sound as if it were being recounted by a storyteller; perhaps including “the” makes it more formal?


I would use "the" for all of your example sentences, including:

What kinds of things did colonial children, like the young George Washington, do for fun?

... few delve into the personality of the young Washington during his first experiences as a military leader.

Yet the young Einstein also made contributions to early quantum theory of such importance — ...

These people are more famous for their accomplishments in their later years than their earlier years. So we have the old, more famous version of Albert Einstein and the young, less famous version of Albert Einstein. When you say "Einstein" by itself, people will think of the brilliant scientist with the crazy white hair.

Likewise with Napoleon. He was at his peak before his defeat at Waterloo. So when we think of Napoleon, we think of Napoleon at his prime, not the defeated Napoleon.

Without "the", it sounds like Washington and Einstein were young their whole lives.

So, when wouldn't you use "the"? When you're referring to the version that people will think of without clarification. "Einstein" is either the old Albert Einstein, or Einstein from birth to death. "Napoleon" is either the Emperor Napoleon Bonapart I before his defeat at Waterloo, or Napoleon from birth to death. "Africa" is either the Africa of today, or Africa for all of its history.


If you didn't include the definite article, it could sound like you were referring to somebody else with the same name.

For example, if a son is named after his father, there are a few ways to differentiate them. You might refer to them as "Albert Junior" and "Albert Senior". You might also refer to the younger son as "young Albert" to differentiate him from his older father. Saying "young Einstein" could be mistaken as a reference to Einstein's son (if he had one), or even another younger family member such as a sibling.

The definite article is often used to clarify that we are talking about the one specific person with that name that everybody knows about. For example, if someone mentioned that their grandfather was named Albert Einstein you might respond "what - the Albert Einstein"?

Idiomatically, we say "the young Einstein" to indicate that we are referring to the famous Einstein that most people have heard of, but when he was younger.

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