Over on English Language Learners, a non-native speaker asked a question about adding "the" before movie titles.

I wanted to tell him or her that the rule in English is not to add a definite article before a proper noun, but to keep the article if it's part of the title, so you would have, for instance:

I went to see The Big Sleep.


I went to see Sleepless in Seattle.

But it occurred to me that there is an exception to this rule: boats, trains, and other means of transportation. My question is, why is it idiomatic to say:

Tomorrow morning we set sail on the Titanic.


The murder took place on the Orient Express.

when we would never use an article in that context with the name of a person, a city, or a country? Are there other categories of proper nouns that take definite articles, and if so, what if anything is the rule?

  • 2
    There are lots of proper nouns that get definite articles: We hiked the Appalachian Trail. We visited the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa. He is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. We met the President of the United States. We watched the Yankees win their 1000th game. etc.
    – Roger
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 18:19
  • In English, one italicizes the titles of movies, books, plays, as well as the names of specific spacecraft, aircraft, ships, and trains. One ɴᴇᴠᴇʀ uses ugly super-heavy bold type faces for any of these things.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 19:45
  • 1
    So, Roger, what divides the proper nouns that get articles from the ones that don't? That's what I'm trying to get at.
    – chapka
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 19:49
  • 2
    tchrist, boldface type is typically used to highlight the part of the sentence you would like the reader to focus on, which is how I used it here. You are correct that it should also have been italicized, as it was in my other examples where I highlighted a different part of the sentence.
    – chapka
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 19:52
  • @chapka I feel sure this has been discussed many times before on this site. Only recently it was remarked that whilst seas always took an article - the Irish sea, the Mediterranean etc., lakes did not e.g. Lake Winnipeg.
    – WS2
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 20:13

4 Answers 4


In the present-day style of the US Navy (and as far as I can tell also the Royal Navy, though I cannot find a suitable link), the definite article is inserted only when giving the type of vessel— never directly before the vessel's name itself. Thus, the publicity piece entitled “Nimitz Arrives Home” opens with

More than 3,000 Sailors on board the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz …

but subsequent references are bare:

While at sea, Nimitz completed approximately 374 launches and recoveries …

"I am very proud…" said Capt. Jeff Ruth, commanding officer of Nimitz.

In vernacular English the article is both prevalent and rather longstanding in use. Early in Shakespeare's Macbeth, the first witch tells a tale:

Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger:

Or consider the innumerable examples in Purchas His Pilgrimes, a 1625 book "contayning a history of the world, in sea voyages & lande-travells by Englishmen & others," at least six of which lie in this excerpt:

the *Eagle*, the *London*, the *Andrew*, the *May-flower*, the *Iacinth*, the *Prim-rose*

Why this became conventional in English is difficult to say. Perhaps it became natural because the London would clearly refer to something named after bare London— meaning the city— General Slocum was a disaster, but nothing like the General Slocum. Many large or important physical objects and features idiomatically take the article, and a ship big or important enough to take a name might be expected to do so. But articles are highly idiosyncratic; we weekend on the Isle of Wight but on Isle Royale, we sail on the Great Bear Lake though on Lake Ontario, and even climb up the Matterhorn yet up Mont Cervin— the very same mountain, just known by several names.

Proper nouns are particularly twitchy, for not only are names themselves rarely logical (e.g. the people who call themselves Nederlanders we call the Dutch; the people who call themselves Deutsche we call Germans), but the entities they represent may have a preferred “house” style that differs from the styles preferred by other substantially similar entities. Elsewhere I provided the examples of

She is a professor at The Ohio State University. She received her Ph.D. from The George Washington University, and was prepared at The Lawrenceville School.

She is a professor at Kansas State University. She received her Ph.D. from George Mason University, and was prepared at Darrow School.

She is a professor at the University of Arizona. She received her Ph.D. from the College of Charleston, and was prepared at the Milton Hershey School.

Related questions include the following:

  1. When to use a definite article in the name of a ship
  2. Using the definite article before a country/state name
  3. Why use “the” for oceans/seas/rivers etc. but not lakes?
  4. Use of definite article before phrases like Heathrow Airport, Hyde Park, Waterloo Station, Edgware Road and Parliament Square
  5. Why 'The' is used?
  6. Should “the” ever be dropped from the beginning of a name/title?
  7. Definite article with proper nouns, titles followed by a common noun
  8. Document names and proper nouns/definite articles
  9. Definite article before schools, colleges, and universities

I found this material that can probably help with your question:

Definite article:

The first mention of a ship should include type or prefix. For subsequent use the definite article before a ship’s name despite declining usage is always acceptable, except before a pronoun

For example:

leaving Gibraltar, the Victory led the fleet
leaving Gibraltar, Victory led the fleet

But not:

leaving Gibraltar, the HMS Victory led the fleet

Also, some ship names particularly in languages other than English contain the definite article. For example, consider L’Orient, La Splendide; these should never be preceded by the English definite article.

  • “The names of specific spacecraft, aircraft, ships, and trains are treated like titles: they should be italicized.”
    – tchrist
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 19:42

There is nothing wrong with use of the definite article before a ship’s name, the idea that it's use is declining is an opinion, derived from a North American source and hardly representative of Oxford English. It's very much a case of, if it helps the prose to flow then it's okay.

  • Hello, Jim. The question is not about the correctness of including the definite article, but about the reason it is often included. Your implication that 'it helps the prose to flow' could be a valid argument, but a supporting reference endorsing that that is a reason why the usage continues is required. After all, "We went to see 'Titanic' " sounds just as natural as "This is where the Titanic was built". By the way, what's 'Oxford English'? I struggled to understand a nice lad from 'Uddersfield (who got a first in engineering). Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 13:57

Some information about the definite article usage:

  • The article should be used with unique things (they are only one in the world) like the earth, the sun, the east, the west, the paradise etc.
  • With the superlative degree of the adjective like the best, the biggest and also with special adjectives like the great, the new--but a very few adjectives take an article also with the name of nationalities like the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Americans etc.
  • Some proper names of countries start with The like the United States, the UAE, the Emirates, the KSA (KSA is "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" so kingdom will take "the")
  • abstract nouns in special occasion like the honesty of monday
  • month names also do not take the article but in special or definite occasion or time like the Eid of 1940, the winter of 1980, the march of 2011 etc.
  • names of persons:
    • if there are two persons having same names if there is a doubt so we can say that is the AHMED family
    • names like the royals the ariyans but every family name will not take article
  • newspapers names like the New York Times, the Islamabad Express etc but not with each newspaper name
  • some lakes, rivers, seas, universities, schools take the article but keep in mind if you do not use an article it will show it is a proper noun; that is also a rule so no problem simply use article when you think it is suitable.

  • There is also a difference in pronunciation between the /thee/ and the /thuh/: if a word starts with aeiou then we shall read /thee/, otherwise we shall read /thuh/

  • In the modern time the is eliminated with mathematics numbers in writing but not in reading e.g. on the 14th june in reading but in writing on 14th june.

  • Instead of unique thing we do not use the in general sense like truth the best, but the earth is round.

  • Religious books take article like the holy Quran, the Bible etc but chemistry, biology will not take article.

  • Medicine names, diseases, days, months, city names will not take the definite article. Languages instead of English will not take article.

  • Thank you, saad ali khan. You've put a lot of thought and work into this. I think you'd agree, though, that your English needs improving (though it's certainly better than my knowledge of your language!) There are other websites intended for people who are still quite a way off mastering English; it is not the aim of this site to trespass on their areas of expertise. Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 8:43
  • Thanks @Edwin the information which has been given about the article might be against the web site policies but there was a sincere aim to transfer the information because we know that the english is not our mother language so a lot of people get confused about the article use so i thinked it will make them clear .I know lot of spelling mistakes has been made by me because of low concentration but thanks for encouragement i will follow the web site policy thanks a lot................ Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 6:07

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