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Grammatically Speaking
by T. Leo Schmitt

If you have a question for Grammatically Speaking, please send it to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org. We welcome all types of language questions.

Dear Mr. Schmitt,

I'm aware that it's British English, but is there a genuine reason why the BBC would not use the definite article for a ship's name in its article on the history of the Titanic? http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/titanic. Or was it perhaps an editor's flub?

Thanks for your answer.

Sincerely,
Lyn Steyne

Thank you for the question, Ms. Steyne. There are many varieties of English and although there are variations between them, the underlying grammar is clearly closely related.

Traditional Grammatical Explanation
The question of the definite article the is an extraordinarily complex issue, yet there are very clearly patterns of usage that are productive. One pattern in using the definite article is that when there is only one such item or restricted group (as in the Seven Wonders) in existence, we use the, as in the sun, the Pacific, or the Statue of Liberty. However, a second pattern is that we do not use a definite article with proper nouns as in Leo, America, or TESOL International Association. Clearly, as the above examples show, these two patterns can be mutually contradictory. What speakers have done to deal with this is to apply different patterns to different subgroups. Thus we use a definite article in cases such as for landmarks (the Taj Mahal), oceans and seas (the Mediterranean), island groups (the Moluccas), etc. On the other hand, we use no definite article for other groups, such as people (Ms. Steyne), countries (Brazil), and works of art (Twelfth Night or Gone with the Wind). With these two different groups, it makes it hard for learners of English to know what to do!

Types of vehicles/vessels tend to belong to the former group and take a definite article. Thus we have cars (the Batmobile), trains (the Orient Express), airplanes (the Spirit of Saint Louis), spaceships (the Enterprise), and ships (the Mary Celeste) taking definite articles. Thus your query is a natural one. We would expect the Titanic to follow the pattern and take a definite article. This would be standard and I cannot think of a single example of a ship that is routinely and generally called by its name without the definite article.

In any case, it seems clear that the general preference for ships, including the overwhelming data from the British National Corpus, is to use a definite article, and so the Titanic would seem preferable, but see below for some discussion on style.

Teaching Tips
As we saw above, dealing with a specific group such as vehicles/vessels is comparatively straightforward, but the patterns for definite articles remain problematic. This is especially so for those students whose languages make minimal or no use of articles. For advanced students, it can be worthwhile to explore the various groups, such as those mentioned above, that take or do not take a definite article.

On a broader note, we can look at one way of classifying the most common uses of the definite article.

The first is where an object has been previously mentioned and thus both reader and writer or speaker and listener know which noun we are talking about as in “I saw a cat this morning... and there wasn't a single point in which you would bear comparison with him. The cat's eyes were clear - yours are muddy.

The second use of the definite article is associated with a shared situational context, where both the reader and writer or speaker and listener know what is being referred to. This is more common in spoken language as we see the environment around us. One example would be the telephone in front of both speaker and listener as in “Finally, can you answer the phone when this happens?” Another example would be “Long live the Queen,” where the specific queen in question is known by those speaking.

The third common use of the definite article is when surrounding adjectives, clauses, or other markers modify the noun to narrow it down to a clear single example as in “The first cut is the deepest,” or “the car that was hit by a meteorite.

There are many other uses of the definite article that make it a very difficult concept to master for second language learners. This includes idioms such as “on the other hand” and “in the nick of time.” It is an ongoing process.

Language Notes
Interestingly, your question brings up another question.  The writer of the article you cite is clearly an educated first-language user of English. Why, then, did he or she choose to omit the definite article? From the context, it seems clear that the choice was deliberate and not a typo. Interestingly, it seems that among sailors and other maritime folk it is not unknown to drop the definite article when referring to ships as in “I am meeting two new friends from this years [sic] event for a little sail on Dauntless!”. It may be that the writer was reflecting a saltier grammar than most of us landlubbers can muster. English is a global language with hundreds of millions of speakers making choices of what and how to speak every day. There is no officially sanctioned body that passes binding judgments on what is or is not appropriate, and grammar commentators can offer their own insights.

However, many large institutions create their own style guides to address common issues of contention. The BBC has an in-house style guide that is not available to the public, but older versions indicate that a definite article would be expected in this situation.

I contacted the BBC to query the usage in this article. Mr. Ian Jolly, Style Editor, responded that generally the approach would indeed be to use a definite article for this sort for naval craft. However, as he says, the writers in the history department chose to omit the definite article. He did say that the BBC strives toward a more unified style but he closes by saying “However, it is a big organisation and others will wish to plough their own furrow!” The challenges at such an august institution as the BBC reflect at a very small scale the challenges of English and how grammatical patterns may be used and re-evaluated by different speakers at different times with many choosing nonstandard usages that grow and change as the language itself grows and changes.

Last Month’s Brain Teaser

Look at the two example sentences below. Explain what grammatical holdover they illustrate and suggest how a teacher might teach this to a language class.

  1. Here's why working at home is both a curse and a blessing.
  2. In particular, Biden cited the billions of dollars in government financial support for U.S. automakers during the recession as an example of the differing approaches between the parties.

The answer I was looking for is that these sentences both include an example of the English dual plural (both and between). English used to have a much more complex grammar which included dual plurals, rather than just a simple singular and plural. Both and between are relics of this structure as are either and neither. Essentially, we use them when there are exactly two of something. Compare one cat, both cats, and all cats.

This distinction continues to fade, with people having said between three or more things since at least the 16th century (which would strictly have been among three things in old English), even though the word itself is etymologically derived from two (tween). Singular and plural can cause confusion for some learners, especially those whose languages handle number difference in a very different way. Highlighting these words and their standard (three or more plural) can help. The common ones are both/all, neither/none, and either/any.

Note that, strictly speaking, former and latter only refer to the first and second of a group of two (but again this distinction is not always followed). The standard for more than two would be first and last, with room for as many as necessary in between. All of these seem to be flexible in modern language with the exception of both, which seems to be fairly robustly limited to two things.

This Month’s Brain Teaser:
Look at these two sentences. How would you explain the difference between them to students?

  1. Do you want some more coffee?
  2. Did you want some more coffee?

The first correct answer will be published in the next column of Grammatically Speaking.
Please e-mail your responses to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org.

When writing to Grammatically Speaking, please include your name and location (city and state, province, or country). If your question or response is selected for publication, your name and location will be printed unless you specify otherwise.

Note that examples cited in this column are authentic examples of language use and are not the author’s creations.

 

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