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I used to think that you must always use an article with a person's name if it's preceded with a modifier: the definite article if the quality is permanent or typical ('The conscientious Mike was the go-to guy in the company'), an indefinite article if it's temporary ('Don't mess with an angry Liz'). However, I recently came across a sentence on the BBC where a modified name doesn't go with an article (I'm sorry, I don't want to look for the link, I forgot what article it was). When and how should I use articles with modified names of people?

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  • 'The conscientious Mike' is just shorthand for 'Mike, who was a conscientious person...' Feb 12 at 20:00
  • 2
    Fair enough not remembering the exact page, or article, but why not provide the BBC example? It would make it easier for users to post an answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 25 at 11:19
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+500

This answer is based on The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum, 2002, pp. 519-522.

Embellishments and the definite article

There are three different kinds of words/phrases that modify a noun/NP: nominal and adjectival attributive modifiers, and determiners. Huddleston and Pullum call these "semantically non-restrictive dependents"" embellishments of the NP (noun phrase) headed by a proper noun. For example:

writer David Foster Wallace

"writer" is a nominal functioning as the embellishment of the noun phrase David Foster Wallace which is also a proper noun and the head of the NP. When this construction is not lead by the definite article, the noun is usually a title or can be considered a title. Other examples in this category:

architect Norman Foster, mother of two Eileen Jones, special agent Cully, nuclear physicist Lord Rutherford (examples from CGEL)

And an adjective can be attached at the front to form an adjective phrase.

well-born Hampshire gentleman John Grant

Nominal modifiers generally occur with personal names and serve to categorise the person concerned. The construction is to be distinguished from the one where the proper name is an appositive: in architect Norman Foster the proper name is head and architect an omissible embellishment, whereas in the architect Norman Foster the head is architect and the propernameisanomissible appositive dependent. We noted above that it is arguable whether appellations should be regarded as part of the proper name or as embellishments; certainly expressions like Secretary of State Colin Powell or Prime Minister Tony Blair, used more extensively in AmE than in BrE... (CGEL, p.520)

The second category I think is most relevant to your examples:

beautiful Italy, dear old Mr Smithers, poor Henry, sunny Italy, historic Virginia; the inimitable Oscar Wilde, the distraught Empress Alexandra

Adjectives occur as embellishments of proper names in two constructions: in bare NPs or in ones determined (redundantly) by the.... The bare NP construction is restricted to a fairly small set of adjectives with emotive colouring: beautiful and ugly, young and old, and so on. The determined NP construction allows a somewhat larger range including beautiful, dazzling, incomparable, inimitable, irrepressible, unfortunate, wretched, and adjectives denoting emotional states such as distraught, furious, jealous. Such adjectives can in general modify the head of weak proper names: the ill-fated Titanic. (CGEL)

I put emphasis on the part that's most directly pertinent to your question: when the definite article is omitted, only a small subset of adjectives can be idiomatically used to lead the construction, but if you keep the definite article, a lot of other adjectives can go on there too without sounding strange.

The third kind: determiners

Who’s [this Penelope who’s been sending you emails]?, [That Senator Fox] should be locked up, [Your Mr Jenkins] has been arrested again!

The main determiners that are used as embellishments are the demonstratives and genitive personal pronouns... The genitive indicates a close relationship: your Mr Jenkins suggests that you are a close acquaintance of Mr Jenkins. Often it is a parental relationship: [My Jennifer]has won the school prize again. (CGEL)

Proper nouns without definiteness

Your second example "Don't mess with an angry Liz." indicates that the proper name loses its definiteness. Basically, when that construction occurs the proper name loses its definiteness. For example. when someone says "Russia" we all know what they are talking about: a country, singular and identifiable. But a proper noun can lose their definiteness, and when that happens it either follows a definite article or indefinite article: This is not the Russia that I grew up in. (Here we are talking about a kind of Russia from the past.) We are seeing a new Russia under his leadership. (Again, a set of traits set this version of Russia apart.)

Huddleston and Pullum argue:

In their primary use proper names are inherently definite, and for this reason their heads do not select from the determiner system in the same way as ordinary heads in NP structure. Proper names also have various secondary uses where this inherent definiteness is lost, and where determiners are thus selected in the ordinary way. (CGEL, p.520)

They tease out five uses of proper nouns stripped of definiteness. (CGEL pp. 521-522) The following examples are from CGEL. Unquoted explanation is my own words.

(1) To denote a set of manifestations of the bearer of the name

  1. This is not [the Paris I used to know].
  2. This is [a United States I prefer to forget].
  3. [The young Isaac Newton] showed no signs of genius.

This is the most relevant to your second example. When you say "an angry Liz" you are talking a version or manifestation of Liz that differs from other versions of Liz or her usual self.

(2) To denote a set of bearers of the name

  1. [The Mary that you met yesterday] is my fiancée.
  2. I’ve never met [an Ophelia] before.
  3. There are [two Showcase Cinemas] in Manchester.
  4. Shall we invite [the Smiths]?
  5. Was it [THE Bill Gates] he was talking about? (Examples from CGEL)

For example, if my friends told me they had dinner with Bill Gates yesterday, I'd say, "Whoa, you kidding me? THE Bill Gates?" Because there could potentially be a lot of people named Bill Gates out there, and I couldn't believe my friends really had dinner with the most famous one that everybody has heard of.

(3) To denote a set of entities having relevant properties of the bearer of the name

  1. We need [another Roosevelt].
  2. She’s [no Florence Nightingale].

Say I have a friend named Haley. Haley is really fun to be around but she has recently moved to another country. I tell another friend: "Hey, I miss Haley. We need another Haley!" What I mean is I like the set of traits that make Haley a great friend and I want another person with those traits.

(4) To denote a set of products created by the bearer of the name

  1. The gallery has acquired [a new Rembrandt].
  2. Let’s listen to [some Beethoven] tonight.

If someone told me they had a Leonardo da Vinci in their house, I wouldn't think they had the artist in the flesh as a guest or as a mummy. I'd understand they are talking about an artwork by that artist.

(5) To denote a set of copies/editions, etc., of the entity bearing the name

  1. Can I borrow [your Guardian] for a few minutes?
  2. The film was reviewed in [yesterday’s Herald-Tribune].

Reference

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum, 2002, pp. 519-522.

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  • What about the second example? Apr 1 at 3:18
  • @SergeyZolotarev With the indefinite article? Basically, when that construction occurs the proper name loses its definiteness. For example. when someone says "Russia" we all know what they are talking about: a country, singular and identifiable. But a proper noun can lose their definiteness, and when that happens it either follows a definite article or indefinite article: This is not the Russia that I grew up in. (Here we are talking about a kind of Russia from the past.) We are seeing a new Russia under his leadership. (Again, a set of traits set this version of Russia apart.)
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 1 at 3:49
  • @Eddie Kal Sorry for my negativity but you appear to have answered "must always use an article with a proper name/noun" not "must always use an article with a person's name" as asked in the question. Old Pete is a name; agreed not a proper name but it does for fill the definition of a name "word or words that a person, thing, or place is known by" Yes by by default in some of your examples you are changing from a proper name to a name, however you are not directly addressing the issue of the Why the lack of article with a name
    – Brad
    Apr 1 at 5:23
  • Please edit your answer to address both my examples (preferably, with references) Apr 1 at 9:28
  • @SergeyZolotarev Done.
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 1 at 15:46
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When you do this, you're categorizing the person to extent that you are giving them a title. The 45th president of the US did this often in their criticism of political opponents; e.g. "Sleepy Joe", "Mini Mike", "Crooked Hillary". In your examples, if the speaker were to change these to "Conscientious Mike" or "Angry Liz", it could suggest that the adjective is an inseparable part of the persona of Mike and Liz.

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  • I appreciate your use of the singular "their". In this case the gender and preferred pronouns of the 45th president is well known and you could say "his". Mar 26 at 0:06
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I used to think that you must always use an article with a person's name if it's preceded with a modifier: the definite article if the quality is permanent or typical ('The conscientious Mike was the go-to guy in the company'), an indefinite article if it's temporary ('Don't mess with an angry Liz'). However, I recently came across a sentence on the BBC where a modified name doesn't go with an article (I'm sorry, I don't want to look for the link, I forgot what article it was).

Q.

When and how should I use articles with modified names of people?


A. It depends on use. If you call you best mate little Pete and your elder brother big Pete you do not use an article with the person's name In this case to put it in a simpler way, the name, Pete, has been replaced by the nick-name little Pete.

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes something or makes its meaning more specific. Also we should remember that modifiers come before or after a word.

a modifier is just a word(s) that describes another word(s). Also of note, a modifier that comes before whatever it modifies is called a "premodifier," and a modifier that comes afterwards is called a "postmodifier." Ref Grammar Monster

Personal names; As a rule, no article is used with a person's name, including first name, middle name, last name, and nickname. Pets' names are also used without any article. Ref Useful English

OK so now lets have a look at use. I am going to introduce you to Puff, the Dragon Now if we give Puff his full title it is Puff, the Magic Dragon. In this sentence we have modified his name with the use of magic which in this case is an adjective. However now you can see that the use of the definite article is not dependent on the modifier but on the "name". If you remove the modifier and the name needs a definite article (or an indefinite article) then it will require the same if you use a modifier.

Now to take things one step further The definite article is in itself a modifier

the one (The modifier is a definite article.) Ref Grammar Monster

one professor (The modifier is a quantifier.)


The use of Titles and Names

Now we have established that little Pete does not use the definite article but Puff, the Magic Dragon does. Why? Well actually if we use Puff's name he does not use the definite article but if we use his title the Magic Dragon he does. Obviously if an article is not used with a name and an article has been included in the sentence, like in "The conscientious Mike" then, it is being used with the word proceeding the name to make an informal title. Just the same as in Puff "the magic Dragon" your example "an angry" Liz. "An angry" becomes an informal title. However little Pete is just a nick-name even if it is a descriptive name, it is not a title. Likewise, "conscientious Mike was the go-to guy in the company" would make reference to a nick-name Mike had acquired.

Titles, ranks, job titles, and the like are used before or after personal names, as well as without names. On the whole, titles that follow a personal name and titles used without a name are capitalized less frequently in American English than in British English. Ref Useful English

Examples

In 1189, all of Henry’s territory went to his oldest son, Richard I, better known as Richard the Lionheart. Ref King John

Edward of Woodstock (1330-1376 CE), better known as the Black Prince after his distinctive armour or martial reputation, was the eldest son of Edward III of England (r. 1327-1377 CE). Made the Prince of Wales in 1343 CE Ref Edward the Black Prince


Surname in the plural

The definite article "the" is required when the surname is used in the plural to show the members of the family together or just the husband and wife as a family. Example

The Browns have a large house near the lake.... Ref Part 6 Articles with People's Names


The use of Articles with Restrictive and Nonrestrictive appositives, which may, sometimes act as modifiers

Information about people may also be in the form of appositives. An appositive is a noun (or a phrase) that defines or explains another noun in the sentence by renaming it. An appositive stands immediately after the noun that it defines.

Example

Jim Trent, a young pianist, was invited to play at the reception. Ref Part 6 Articles with People's Names



Note

Nonrestrictive appositives (that is, providing additional, not essential information) are set off by commas. Restrictive appositives (that is, providing necessary information, essential to the meaning of the sentence) are not set off by commas.

In the phrase "Lord Byron, an English poet", the phrase "an English poet" is a nonrestrictive appositive. It gives additional information and can be omitted. In the phrase "by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin", the name "Alexander Pushkin" is a restrictive appositive. It provides needed information and cannot be omitted.

magic, adjective, with special powers: Ref CED Magic

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  • The answer doesn't address my examples Mar 25 at 23:40
  • @Sergey Zolotarev; "Personal names; As a rule, no article is used with a person's name, including first name's" The first names Mike and Liz are used in your examples. Therefore I am sorry I thought I had address this issue. Obviously if an article is not used with a name it is being used with the word proceeding the name to make an informal title. Just the same as Puff "the magic Dragon" your example uses "an angry" Liz.
    – Brad
    Mar 25 at 23:50

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