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Which is correct?

I am king of the world.

I am the king of the world.

Additionally, which would be the better choice, if I wanted to use the expression "king" to signify dominance in a metaphorical way or in slang.

I am king of the backstreet.

I am the king of the backstreet.

And is there a difference, if we are not king of a place but of a group of people?

I am king of (the) thieves.

I am the king of (the) thieves.

Is there a general grammatical rule for that?

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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I can't find an authority on this, so this answer is based on my intuition and anecdotal evidence. That said, I think that technically you should include "the", though in this case you can get away without it.

The general rule is that if you use a noun in the singular and it is not a proper noun, it requires an article (or another adjective indicating "one", like the word "one"). So:

That man is the king. (article required)

But

That man is King Charles. (no article)

"King of the world" and "king of thieves" are not proper nouns but descriptions, and so require an article. But what gives you some leeway is that, to the average English-speaker's ears, specific titles can sound like proper names. So if you said

I am King of the World.

... as if that was your name, then you can get away without using an article and it doesn't sound particularly strange. Maybe there's some rule somewhere that says that that's right. I think it's wrong, but it doesn't sound jarring.

As I said, I'm having trouble finding a good authority on this. I did come across "The is used in place names and titles including of. In the case of official job titles, the is usually dropped if there is only one such incumbent at any given time." (Reference)

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I'm not sure I agree that technically you should include "the". In many contexts it seems reasonable to either include the article or not, as a matter of personal/stylistic choice. But in, for example, "king of all he surveys" it's very rarely included. I can't offhand think of any contexts where it almost always would be included, but I've no doubt they exist. –  FumbleFingers Oct 29 '12 at 14:58
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...regarding your "world" example, the truth is Google Books claims 3330 hits for "is king of the world", but only 274 for "is the king of the world", so what "jars" for you obviously doesn't for the majority. –  FumbleFingers Oct 29 '12 at 15:05
    
@FumbleFingers I said it "DOESN'T sound jarring" -- I'm agreeing with you. For what it's worth, I just did a Google ngram on "is king of" vs "is the king of", and the "the" form appears to be roughly twice as popular. books.google.com/ngrams/… –  Jay Oct 29 '12 at 21:16
    
Mea culpa. I was reading carelessly. But let my GB link there stand in support of your assertion that "the" is rarely used in certain contexts. But I still don't agree that either usage is in any meaningful sense "technically correct". Nor do I think things like "the director" vs. "a director" are relevant to "unique" titles like king, queen, president etc. There's only one Prince of Wales at any given time, but I bet he gets more The's than [the] Queen. –  FumbleFingers Oct 29 '12 at 21:46
    
@FumbleFingers Granted, my "technically incorrect" statement may not be technically correct. :-) "Edward became Prince of Wales in 1910" (no "the") doesn't sound jarring to me, but I'm neither English nor Welsh so I don't hear the title said often. (PS I'm sure there's a history to this, but as an American I don't understand how the heir to the King of England is the Prince of Wales. That sounds like saying that before you can become President of the United States you must first be Finance Minister of Canada.) –  Jay Oct 30 '12 at 14:59
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I think this extract from the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ might cover it:

When a predicative noun phrase names a unique role or job, either a zero article or the is used.

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The presence of the definite article shifts focus to itself from 'king':

"I am king of the world."

vs.

"I am the king of the world."

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Roger Miller: King Of The Road

Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let...fifty cents.
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain't got no cigarettes
Ah, but..two hours of pushin' broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I'm a man of means by no means
King of the road.


Kiss: King Of The Mountain

I'm the king of the mountain, I'm the king of the mountain
I'm the king of the mountain, I'm the king of the mountain
Yeah, now
Oh, yeah, king of the mountain
Say it, king of the mountain
I'm the king of the mountain, I'm the king of the mountain, yeah
I'm the king of the mountain
And the winner takes it all, let's go, let's go, let's go


See, for example, a sermon delivered by Rev. Richard Fairchild, 2003 I came up with a few images: from childhood:
- fairy-tale kings: benevolent, often dead, with a wicked queen
- king of the hill: the game where the strongest pushes everyone else off the hill - "king me": checkers king jumps in all directions, taking over and winning

from adult years:
- "the" King - Elvis Presley - of which no more needs to be said -
- the King in the "Wizard of Id" - a self-centred bumbling dictator
- king crab, king-sized ..., - the biggest and best
- king o' the road - a wanderer with no cares
- A chess king - one of limited movement and power to protect
- Queen Elizabeth - a woman of charm - but no real impact on day to day life.


King of the Mountain in Wikipedia


Ngrams for "is/was the king of" and "is/was king of" show more instances without the the than with the the.

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