When reading the title of the book, we don't know what three men it is talking about so there is no/indefinite article (the same with "a boat"). But why is there "the Dog" instead of "a Dog"? We don't know anything about the dog either.

Update: Thanks for the answers. However, I'm not sure why the question got down-voted. I'm not a native speaker and my language has no articles, so using them properly and knowing different corner cases in English poses a problem for me. Honestly, I'd like to know the reasons for down-votes so that I could ask better/more qualified questions in the future. So I kindly ask people who down-voted to explain the reasons.

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    I think analysing the "syntax" of (book) titles is Too Localised. Dec 7, 2012 at 14:18
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    Montmorency is one of the greatest characters in English literature and definitely deserves the The
    – mgb
    Dec 7, 2012 at 14:55
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    "of dog" implies something is made of dog meat. "of a dog" means some dog, you don't care which one. "of the dog" is referring to a specific dog, which is tantalizing because you don't yet know the dog (or for that matter the three men).
    – Mitch
    Dec 7, 2012 at 15:41
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    I'm not sure why this got downvoted, either, but the fact that your native language has no articles makes the question more interesting; I'd recommend adding that information in future questions (it helps us understand why there might be some confusion). You might also want to commit your support to the sister site for English Language Learners, where some questions like this one might even be a better fit.
    – J.R.
    Dec 7, 2012 at 19:38
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    I don't see why people are voting to close this question. None of the existing answers (including mine) are really satisfactory. Voters to close—please explain why this is so easy. If there were a duplicate question, I'd understand closing it, but none of the current close votes is for the reason of duplication. Dec 8, 2012 at 19:50

4 Answers 4


The use of "the" suggests a certain, particular dog which will soon become, or is already, connected to the three men. In contrast, "a boat", with an indefinite article, implies less connection between the men and the boat, that it is not a particular boat.

Completely off-topic, the 1930s Czechoslovak Head of State Emil Hacha was an expert in English literature known for his translation of this charming book into Czech.

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    I agree with this 'anticipated familiarity'. There was a time when I was perplexed by the title 'The Hobbit', though there are few people who would question the definite article now. There is also a connotation of familiarity in the emotional sense - 'the wife' or 'the missus' is often used in place of 'my wife' to connote affection. Dec 8, 2012 at 19:53
  • Now that I look at where the OP is from, my completely off-topic remark is not off-topic at all! Dec 8, 2012 at 23:05
  • This is by far the best answer so far. You could imagine the title as "Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the Dog [who was also in the boat]" - the first part of the title having introduced the context, there is a specific dog that goes in that context.
    – alcas
    Dec 9, 2012 at 4:40

Do we know which boat is being talked about? No. It could be a white boat, a blue boat, a large boat, a tiny boat, a new boat, or an old boat.

But – do we know which boat is being talked about? Sure we do! It's the boat that the three men (to say nothing of the dog) are floating in.

So, we can say "Three Men in a Boat" or "Three Men in the Boat." Neither would be incorrect.

Likewise, do we know what men we are talking about? No; for all we know, they could be butchers, bakers, or candlestick-makers.

But – do we know what men we are talking about? Of course! We are talking about the three men who are in the boat. So "The Three Men in a Boat" would also be a valid title.

You can repeat this exercise with the dog, if you want. But saying that the article gets chosen based on "what we know" about the subject is an overly simplistic way of stating it, and that method ignores any inferred context.

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    "Three Men in the Boat" doesn't work, because they could be in any boat and that requires an indefinite article, though as you say it could define the three men. You could say "The Boat with Three Men In It", because then 'boat' is immediately defined as the one containing three men. Dec 7, 2012 at 15:37
  • @RoaringFish: "Three Men in the Boat" works fine, especially for a title. (By the way, it can't be just any boat, it has to be the boat they are in – after all, they are in the boat.) You should listen to this song for another good example.
    – J.R.
    Dec 7, 2012 at 17:09
  • If the fact it could be any boat "requires" an indefinite article, then I suppose one couldn't say "Two Sailors on the Beach", "Three Men in the Furnace", "Four Women in the Harem", "Five Monkeys at the Zoo", or "Ten Men in the Huddle", either. Oh, well - at least there are plenty of fish in the sea.
    – J.R.
    Dec 8, 2012 at 0:16
  • So you wouldn't say "we are staying in a hotel when we go on holiday", because it can't be just any hotel, it has to be the hotel you are staying in? You are getting it completely the wrong way around. You can use the definite article if you immediately specify which individual object you are referring. So, "The Three men in a Boat" works because it immediately defines the men as the ones in a boat. It does not define the boat - that could be any boat. You are, in fact, 'saying that the article gets chosen based on "what we know" about the subject'... Dec 9, 2012 at 13:11
  • @Roaring: I never said "Three Men in a Boat" doesn't work, I simply said the article could be changed (not should be changed). Yes, of course I'd say, "We are staying in a hotel when we go on vacation." :^) I'm not getting it the "wrong way around," because I'm not arguing for "the", I'm simply saying it could be used, and there would be nothing ungrammatical about it. If there were 17 boats at the pier, and only one of them was occupied, we could say either "Look! There are three men in the boat," or "Look! There are three men in a boat," and either one would work.
    – J.R.
    Dec 14, 2012 at 9:58

In this title, the dog is mentioned after the men have already been established as the subject of discussion. So when you mention the dog, it's not just any dog; it's the dog that goes with the men who are already under discussion. This specific dog requires a "the". Here are some other possible titles for that book. In most of them, only one of "a dog" and "the dog" sounds right to me. As you can see, it's not easy to give rules that pinpoint the point at which the subject of discussion becomes established, but I suspect most native English speakers will agree on it.

Three Men and a Dog in a Boat
Three Men in a Boat, and also a Dog
Three Men in a Boat, and a Dog as Well
Three Men in a Boat, not to Mention the Dog
Three Men in a Boat—Oops! I Forgot about the Dog
Three Men in a Boat (There was a Dog in it, Too)
Four Men in a Boat (Including the/a Dog)

  • All these, plus other permutations with the Boat, instead of a Boat. I think the "need" for an indefinite article in front of Boat is overblown. Unless the three title characters switch from vessel to vessel over the course of the novel, I think there would be very little shift in meaning if "Three Men in the Boat" were used (not unlike, say, "Three Coins in the Fountain", or "Three Girls on the Jetty"). I certainly wouldn't deem it "ungrammatical."
    – J.R.
    Dec 9, 2012 at 9:32

You must use an article with a singular, non-personal noun. (Or one of a small set of alternative adjectives, like "one".) You do not use an article with a plural noun.

An exception is that we sometimes put "the" in front of a plural noun to indicate that it is some specific group. For example, you might say, "I saw a tall man." Because "man" is singular, you need an article. "I saw two tall men." "Men" is plural here so you do not normally use an article. But you might say, "I saw the two tall men" if you had previously mentioned a pair of tall men wandering around and you want to say that you saw the same pair of men again.

So if we were writing a full sentence, we might say, "I saw three men and a dog in a boat." We would not say, "I saw three men and dog in a boat." That would just be wrong: the singular requires an article. We might say, "I saw the three men and the dog in a boat" if we were referring to some specific group of three men.

  • This is answering a question the OP didn't ask, and ignoring the one they did.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 7, 2012 at 17:24

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