One of the recently released movies is called "Terminal". The title of the movie does not include any article, definite or indefinite. Would it be correct to conclude that in the absence of an article the title is intended to be perceived as an adjective (as in "terminal disease") and not as a noun (as in "airport terminal")? Or is it still ambiguous (noun vs. adjective) when taken out of context?

On a related topic, the older Tom Hanks movie is called "The Terminal". What could be the reason for the definite article in this movie title? It definitely disambiguates the title as a noun. Is that the only reason, or is there more to that "the" in the title?

I'm asking specifically about movie (or book) titles since I suspect that there might be an informal/semi-formal convention involved, which would disambiguate the meaning where formal rules of the language can't.

  • Context always matters. In this case, as you noted, Terminal can either refer to a terminal illness or a terminal. Not sure what the question is about. Commented May 1, 2018 at 0:33
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    It may be intentionally ambiguous.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 0:49
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    Movie titles, book titles, advertising slogans, dialog in plays and dramas--they are not expected to follow standard rules. "Terminal" could be a noun; or a description of a disease state. Whatever.
    – Xanne
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 0:53
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    @AnT Welcome to EL&U. The only way to know if it is strictly intended to be read one way or the other is to ask the author; titles can often be interpreted multiple ways, and often this is deliberate, from plays like The Importance of Being Earnest to films like The King's Speech to novels like Finnegans Wake, among other works. Famously, Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is a triple-entendre; nothing was a homophone for noting (meaning gossip) and an o-thing was period slang for a vagina.
    – choster
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 1:04
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    Even with a noun following it, the word terminal can be ambiguous. When I was a student in Annapolis, Maryland, in the 1970s, the eatery adjacent to the city's Greyhound Bus station announced itself on a large signboard as "Terminal Restaurant." I never dared eat there.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 6:35

1 Answer 1


You should watch the movie to determine what the title refers to. You cannot truly know the meaning of something without its context. I believe you are referring to the 2018 film Terminal, and through reading the plot summary on IMDb, you can pick out clues:

In the dark heart of a sprawling, anonymous city, TERMINAL follows the twisting tales of two assassins carrying out a sinister mission, a teacher battling a fatal illness, an enigmatic janitor and a curious waitress leading a dangerous double life. Murderous consequences unravel in the dead of night as their lives all intertwine at the hands of a mysterious criminal mastermind hell-bent on revenge.

The following lines stick out to me:

two assassins carrying out a sinister mission

a teacher battling a fatal illness

Murderous consequences

Looking at the dictionary definitions of "terminal" from OED:

a. Occurring at the end (in time or serial order); forming the last member of a series or succession; closing, final, ultimate.

(b) Of an individual: affected with a terminal disease or the terminal stage of a disease; close to death, moribund.

Based on the synopsis of the movie (and without watching it), I would believe the title is intentionally ambiguous and refers to multiple "terminal" events in the film. The "teacher battling a fatal illness" is the clearest use of terminal that I see, though it is also likely playing on the other "murderous consequences." There may very well also be a scene in an airport terminal, but you would not know that without watching the movie.

TL;DR: Watch the movie, then form your interpretation based on the information you absorbed. Your opinion may differ from someone else's; that's part of film criticism. The same thing applies to books—why did the author decide this title? What does it mean? Read the book for context, then use that information to make an argument for your interpretation of the title.

EDIT: To answer your question about the film "The Terminal," you can read the synposis:

An eastern immigrant finds himself stranded in JFK airport, and must take up temporary residence there.

The title clearly refers to the fact the film takes place in an airport terminal, hence the title refers to that specific terminal.

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