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Hey native English speakers,

My question is regarding the use of the definite article before a person's name, as in

Realtime with the Bill Maher on HBO (youtu.be/I9HCbOmwndA?t=8m40s)

or in the Metallica song "The Unforgiven II":

If you can understand the me

Then, I can understand the you

I suppose these must be grammatical. If so, what are they supposed to mean? If not, why are native speakers making such sentences (especially Metallica; I mean that song is going to become history, right?)?

  • Welcome Sia! The song lyric interpretation is off-topic for this site. I tried to watch the Bill Maher video but the link didn't work. Can you include the actual link or put the quote in your question so we can see what you're asking about? Thanks! :-) – Kristina Lopez Aug 20 '13 at 22:37
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    Welcome to ELU. I think you misunderstood Letterman - what he says is not "Real Time with the Bill Maher" but "Real Time with, uh, Bill Maher ..." - his tongue gets ahead of his brain! The me and the you are poetic uses, not colloquial. – StoneyB Aug 20 '13 at 22:54
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It's actually NOT grammatical -- to the best of my knowledge -- to use "the" in the case of a pronoun. But even if it is actually grammatical, it is a very unusual construction, intended to give emphasis. In both cases.

The use of "the" in the case of a proper name is to indicate that one is speaking of the well-known person by that name, as opposed to another person who is named similarly, but who is not the famous one.

If my name were Bill Maher (and thank goodness it is not), and someone was introduced to me, they might ask (if they didn't know what the famous Bill Maher looked like):

"Are you THE Bill Maher?"

In almost all cases with using "the" with a proper name, it is pronounced "thee" as opposed to "thuh", and with some emphasis.

Since I speak German, I happen to know that in casual conversation it is fairly common for someone to speak of another by name using the definite article. A friend of a man named Otto might speak of him to another friend as "der Otto". This is normally not done in English, however, except in the case I mentioned.

  • Yes, that's correct. English articles are severely constrained in each of their uses, but there are many different uses, all of them more or less idiomatic, as every English learner finds out rapidly. Unlike German, articles may not function as relative pronouns nor as personal or indefinite pronouns. They have to modify the dummy noun one if they stand alone. And if the modifies an attributive attribute, it can only refer to a class, never to an individual; the old simply means aged people, whereas der Alte can mean a specific person, like Konrad Adenauer. – John Lawler Aug 20 '13 at 23:07
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    Although for Herrn Adenauer, I would probably say "der Tote". Joking aside, in place of "der Alte", in English that would have to modified to "the old one" or "the old man". The latter having a connotation of cameraderie in certain contexts. – Cyberherbalist Aug 21 '13 at 2:46

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