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I've heard people say "be king" (as in "I can't wait to be king") in movies and TV. Why don't they say "be a king"? Which is correct?

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, ermanen, Tushar Raj, tchrist, Barmar May 18 '15 at 20:09

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  • 7
    King is a very potent word, and since there can only be one at a time, it's unique and can take all three varieties of article when it's a predicate noun. (Droit de roi, after all). Princess Charlotte can't be king; Princess Charlotte can't be a king; Princess Charlotte can't be the king. All correct. Ditto for Queen. – John Lawler May 14 '15 at 15:46
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    @John: But whereas Prince Charles could grammatically say (and I believe quite likely actually has said) "I want to be [the] King" with or without the article, it would have seemed a bit odd to me if Diana Spencer had said "I want to be Princess". I can't make up my mind if I'd like that one any better with the (though a is fine), but either version seems fine with "I want to be [the] Princess of Wales". I think this must be because of what you say - at any given time there can be multiple princesses, but only one Princess of Wales. – FumbleFingers May 14 '15 at 16:51
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    Princess is not a unique term; there can be more than one at a time. That changes the specificity. – John Lawler May 14 '15 at 17:11
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    @FumbleFingers: I think saying "Yakko became the king of Anvilania" emphasizes a change in Fred's status from being something else to being Anvilania's monarch, while "Yakko became king of Anvilania" would emphasize that identity of Anvilania's ruler changed from being someone else to being Yakko. Which phraseology to use would depend upon which change was more important. – supercat May 14 '15 at 18:43
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    @FumbleFingers have I missed the memo or something? None of the answers posted have used the capitalized king. If someone is King of England, that is his title and it must be capitalized, surely? Changing the name of the country shouldn't make any difference. – Mari-Lou A May 15 '15 at 7:19
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Since "a king" uses an indefinite article, it suggests that he may become any one of a number of kings. In most cases where a person may become king, there is only one king in the political structure he inhabits. For instance, if he is in the line of succession for the English throne, he probably cannot become king of France or Denmark without marrying into that royal family. The equivalent phrase to "I can't wait to be king" would use a definite article - it could be rephrased as "I can't wait to be the king", since there is only one kingship he is eligible to accede to.

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    Precisely! The British heir on horseback at the white cliffs of Dover, if you will indulge me, is taking in the ocean and gazing at the rest of Europe across the English Channel, thinking to himself: "I want to be King so badly I can taste the blood of anyone standing in my way!". It is evident that the Price has plenty of stress and anticipation to deal with, and at worst he has been worn down by the formalities and traditions years before being crowned. Add the word 'a' just before 'King' however, and he now seems ready to betray his entire life to be crowned King elsewhere! In an instant! – ProductionValues May 14 '15 at 19:42
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    @ProductionValues "I want to be a king... I'd prefer the kingship they've got waiting for me at home, but I'm open to better offers." – recognizer May 14 '15 at 19:43
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    As a matter of fact, the next person to become king of Denmark will almost certainly also be in the line of succession for the British throne (in the sense of being a legitimate descendant of Electress Sophia of Hanover with no Roman Catholics in the line of descent, as defined by the Act of Settlement 1701). As was already the case for the two last persons to become King of Denmark, by the way. – Henning Makholm May 14 '15 at 22:22
  • @HenningMakholm The tangled history of royal intermarrying is so complicated! -_- I should've picked some fictional nations. – recognizer May 15 '15 at 5:07
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    What's interesting is that, as King, you wouldn't describe yourself as simply "king." That is, when asked "who are you?" you couldn't respond "I am king." You would either say "I am a king," Or I am the king of France" or something. To the question "who are you currently," however, you could respond without the article: "I am King of France." – Misha R Jun 23 '15 at 8:05
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Context is the key.

  1. An heir apparent, next in line, may say: "I can't wait to be king".
  2. A candidate running for President can say: "Wait till I become President!"
  3. Anybody wishing he were a king, would say: "I'd like to be a king".
  4. Same goes for other contexts, such as in this one: "Think like a king!"
  • Yes, this is very important! In your examples 1 and 2, the speaker is talking about a kingship or presidency that already exists, whereas in 3 or 4 they're probably speaking metaphorically, and not talking about the king of anything in particular. Same with the phrase "live like a king". – recognizer May 14 '15 at 16:06
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    And don't forget the Kipling story, filmed with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, "The Man Who Would Be King". We wouldn't use the indefinite, because it was king of somewhere specific; nor yet the definite, because until we read the story or see the film, we don't actually know king of where. So I reckon it takes the biscuit for generic kinghood. – David Pugh May 14 '15 at 17:24
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    @DavidPugh another reason not to use the definite article is that it ruins the iambic scansion. – phoog May 14 '15 at 19:01
  • @phoog. Upvote! I knew there was something tugging at my mind.... – David Pugh May 14 '15 at 19:02
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    In your examples 1 & 2, the speaker could just as accurately said "a king/president". To frame the question in context, don't refer to the speaker but the context in which he/she is speaking. Steve Ballmer speaks to a room full of Microsoft executives, he is the president. Steve Ballmer attends an industry meeting with executives from other companies, he is a president. – John May 14 '15 at 19:12
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King can either be a bare role NP, or part of a larger NP (NP is shorthand for noun phrase). A bare role NP is a singular noun that can occur without a determiner, in other words without a word like "a" or "the". These types of word almost always describe some kind of role, function, office or title. Other examples might be Managing Director, Prime Minister, or Head of Sales.

Of course, nearly always these nouns can also occur as the head of normal noun phrases, where, if they are singular, they must be accompanied by a determiner such as "the", "a" or "my", for example.

The choice between "the" and "a" or other determiners in such cases, is exactly the same as it is for any other noun. In relation to the word "king", it will probably depend on whether one is considering this king as one of a number of kings, in which case the preferred determiner would be "a" - or whether this king is being viewed as the only king, in which case we would favour "the".

Now, you may be given the impression from this that nouns occurring as bare role NPs are interchangeable with normal noun phrases. This is not so. A minor point is that a bare role NP nearly always picks out a unique specific title or role. In this respect, bare role NPs are similar to Proper Names. Furthermore, the organisation or body that this role is in relation to must be obvious from the discourse. If there are several managers in a particular organisation, you cannot want to become Manager. The reason in this case is that it is not clear which unique managerial role you wish to inhabit. If there are several kings under discussion, we cannot modify a bare role NP to show which one we want to refer to. So the following is malformed:

  • *No, he is king I told you about yesterday. (ungrammatical)

The word king must immediately pick out the specific role being discussed.

Perhaps more importantly than all of this is that a bare role NP cannot, in normal circumstances, occur as a subject or object of a clause. The grammatical function of bare role NPs is almost entirely restricted to that of Predicative Complement. We normally only see bare role NPs, therefore, as complements of verbs such as BE or BECOME. The following sentences are therefore ungrammatical:

  • *They killed King. (ungrammatical - king as direct object)
  • *King ordered the execution of the chancellor. (ungrammatical - king as subject)
  • *I was afraid of King. (ungrammatical - king as object complement of preposition).

Notice however, that bare role NPs can function as the complements of prepositions, where the complement is predicative, i.e. it describes an attribute of another entity in the sentence. Bare role NPs often occur as a complement of the preposition as:

  • She performed very well as Managing Director.

Conclusion

All three forms of noun phrase, "king", "a king" and the king" are fully grammatical (and indeed there are many other determiners such as this or some which we could use with this noun).

If this word is a predicative complement, is being used such that it specifically refers to a role, not so much to an entity, and if this role is unique and easily identifiable by the listener, then we could use a bare role NP:

  • He wanted to become King.

If we are considering an individual more than a role; if the king is being considered as one of many; if the phrase is not being used with a predicative function but as a direct object, subject or so forth; then we will have to use the word king as part of a normal noun phrase, where - if it is singular - it will have to occur with a suitable determiner. The range of determiners will be the same as for any other singular countable noun, and like other noun phrases, the determiner that is used will depend on the context.

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The "a" implies multiple kings whereas "to be king" implies the ultimate king of all. So the latter packs more of a punch.

  • Exactly what I was thinking. "Charles may be a king on Earth, but Jesus is the king of us all."... and similar such movie dialogue. – John May 15 '15 at 5:16
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Either one might be correct; it really depends on the context.

For example, in America people might say "I can't wait to be president" and we know we're talking about the American president, not any other president.

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Here, "king" (president, queen, et al..) is sometimes used as an uncountable noun. For instance, there is only one king, and there can only ever be one king for this kingdom.


EDIT: As @JohnLawler points out, "king" can take on all three article forms. It depends on the context and the meaning that is to be conveyed.

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Oddly enough, I think "to be king", "to be a king" and "to be the king" are all different.

If you say "to be a king", like recognizer says, it would imply one of any number of kings, whereas if you say "to be the king", it would imply one specific king of one specific kingdom.

On the other hand, if you say "to be king", it's like you're saying "to have the attributes and/or capabilities that come with being (a/the) king", whichever those are.

In other words, one can be "a king" or "the king" and still not "be king", if such states do not apportion to their monarchs the features of "being king". And, one can "be king" even without being "a king" or "the king", if such features are made available in some other way, unlikely as that may be.

Note that I'm not talking about metaphorical meanings of "king", here (like, say, the "king of rock'n'roll"), but of literal meanings, such as monarch or ruler.

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