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In some grammar book I read:

The use of articles with names of persons modified by adjectives is varied. In most cases no article is used with names of persons modified by the adjectives old, young, poor, dear, little, honest, lazy.

... she is the widow of poor Giovanni Bolla .. (Voynich)

He saw that old Chapin wanted to moralize a little. (Dreiser)

When modified by other adjectives, names of persons take the definite article.

He thought Amelia worthy even of the brilliant George Osborne. (Thackeray)

The astonished Tom could not say a word.

I wonder:

  1. Is this a real rule?

  2. Is this class of modifiers (old, young, poor, dear, little, honest, lazy) a closed set?

  3. Is there any reason for this rule?

  4. Is it possible to say, at least in some contexts, "the young/old/dear/poor/little/honest/lazy Peter"?

  • It's certainly not a "closed set". And I don't think there's really a "rule" that can be described in such terms. It's just that on average, the words listed (and doubtless many others) will occur more often in contexts where the attribute being identified is a permanent (but not well-known) attribute of the person being referenced. Whether the article is present or not, there's only one person of that name contextually available, so the bemused OP here can't really be a device for identifying which OP I'm talking about, even though structurally that's what it looks like. – FumbleFingers Jan 16 '16 at 18:11
  • In reality, I think it's just a somewhat "poetic" construction that tends to occur more often in respect of "temporary" attributes. So structurally it seems more reasonable to include the article, when the particular Tom or OP being referenced is being disambiguated from that same person at other times when they don't have that attribute. – FumbleFingers Jan 16 '16 at 18:14
  • So @FumbleFingers, you mean that using zero article with "lazy Peter" means a permanent attribute? Then "the lazy Peter" should mean temporary attribute? Meanwhile I found "The industrious Peter had himself already spoken to Lisette"... – Kostya Hmelnitski Jan 16 '16 at 18:20
  • I would understand the set of "old-young, poor-dear-little" modifiers. They are sort of emotional modifiers. But "lazy" and "honest" stand alone.. And why not "industrious", "laborious", and "double tongued", "dishonest"? – Kostya Hmelnitski Jan 16 '16 at 18:42
  • To repeat, it's not a rule - there's just a tendency to include the article when there's a (perhaps hypothetical) possibility of there being another [proper noun] so we're specifically identifying this one. Where that "hypothetical" alternative might be either the same person at another time (the bemused Tom), or another person of that name. In the latter case, including the article tends to "elevate" the status of the one you're actually referring to (and it really doesn't matter if you've never heard of any other George Osbornes who might not in fact be "brilliant"). – FumbleFingers Jan 16 '16 at 18:46
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In a BBC World Service Learning English answer about the before nouns, Roger Woodham comments:

It is normal to insert the before the adjective + noun in superlative sentences as there is only one of its kind in this category.

Generalising this idea, even if the adjective isn't a superlative, adding the before the adjective serves to give more prominence (power?) to the adjective, and hence the noun.

You use as an example:

He thought Amelia worthy even of the brilliant George Osborne. (Thackeray)

Consider a modification to use the zero article instead:

He thought Amelia worthy even of brilliant George Osborne.

The zero article version simply notes that George Osborne is brilliant. There's no sense that he outshines others who are also brilliant, or that brilliance is his defining quality (over perhaps tact or sportiness - I don't know the context), whereas the definite article elevates the adjective brilliant towards a superlative.

Regarding your numbered questions:

1 & 3. Is this a real rule? Is there any reason for this rule?

It's stated as a rule of thumb ("... most cases ..."). The reasons for rules of thumb tend to be empirical, rooted in the author's research and experience.

  1. Is this class of modifiers (old, young, poor, dear, little, honest, lazy) a closed set?

No. Insert the zero articled "lovely" before Amelia, and the sentence is still grammatical.

  1. Is it possible to say, at least in some contexts, "the young/old/dear/poor/little/honest/lazy Peter"?

Yes, use any of these modifiers in place of "brilliant" in your Thackeray example: the resulting sentence is still grammatical, and "the" still 'amplifies' the adjective. The definite article is also present in other contexts, e.g. "The young, the old, and the economists".

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This isn't a rule, more like a rule of thumb:

When an adjective describing a permanent condition is used, the definite article is in order:

The brilliant George Osborne had a few drinks.

That said, with some adjectives (such as the ones in your list), no article is necessary:

Young George Osborne had a few drinks.

Most important: when the condition is NOT permanent, an indefinite article is used:

A very angry Tom was having a drink.

When the condition is no

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