Why is there no article before “king” in the clause “Oh I just can’t wait to be king!”

This post is inspired by a question my student asked me. The quote in the title comes from a song in the movie The Lion King (sing along here). We might expect a definite article to be used in front of king. But it’s not there. So what gives?

We know that the indefinite article (a/an) can be used with singular countable nouns in both a specific and unspecific way. We also know that the definite article (the) can be used with uncountable and countable nouns. There is also what’s called the “zero article” for when no article is used, such as in the clause in question. The phrase “Oh I just can’t wait to be king” is clearly grammatical, so it’s not a matter of poetic license or anything like that. But how come it’s grammatical without the article?

The Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English (2002, LSGSWE) by Biber, Conrad and Leech, has an answer to our question. They write (p. 68):

Like a/an with singular countable nouns, the zero article signals indefiniteness with uncountable nouns (1) and plural countable nouns (2):

  1. We have wine on the table girls, drink it. (CONV†)
  2. We have telephones and we talk to people. (CONV)

The reference here is to an indefinite number or amount (often equivalent to some).

Zero article phrases commonly express non-specific or generic reference. But there are also some special uses of the zero article with singular countable nouns, where otherwise we would expect the or a/an to occur.

[…]

C PREDICATIVES WITH UNIQUE REFERENCE

When a predicative noun phrase names a unique role or job, either a zero article or the is used:

Lukeman was re-elected OPEC president in November. (NEWS†) <with zero article>

Simon Burns is the chairman of the appeal fund. (NEWS†) <with the>

The LSGSWE also says (p. 70) that “the same types of noun can occur with the definite article, when a more specific meaning is intended”.

The first question is probably “What’s a ‘predicative noun phrase’?” Well, according to LSGSWE, it’s a noun phrase that comes after verb phrase and direct object (if there is one) and it has the semantic role of “characterizing the preceding noun phrase” (p. 50). This means that a predicative noun phrase looks back on the subject or direct object and says something about them.

So there’s our answer – sometimes in English, no article is used with singular countable nouns, even though we would expect one to be used. The cases where no article is used fall into categories (you can see them on pp. 68-69, or section 4.6.2, in LSGSWE). One of the categories is when a predicative noun phrase names a unique role or job. We can certainly see how king is a unique role or job and that’s why there is no article used in front of it.

It’s important to remember that the clause in question would also be grammatical if there was an article in it: Oh I just can’t wait to be the king. So the question then moves to whether the article isn’t present in order for the lyric to fit the music. I’ll leave that up to the musicians out there.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

2 thoughts on “Why is there no article before “king” in the clause “Oh I just can’t wait to be king!””

  1. Leszek Berezowski in The Myth of the Zero article offers a different take:

    the LSGSWE view on (unique) roles does not apply to predicate nominals – predicate nominals refer to holders of roles and not to roles themselves -“they profile particular queens or presidents and not the abstract concepts of kingship and presidency”;

    when “the” is used it is much less common than no-article and often used when specifying the role using preposition “of” as in the example you give from LSGSWE – “Simon Burns is the chairman of the appeal fund.”

    the reason indefinite “a” is not used with king is because of the rule of succession – i.e. synchronically only one person occupies role of king hence because “a” needs 2 or more entities to refer to we can’t use it with king and similar titles involving succession

    ta
    mura

    1. Oooh, thank you for this! I didn’t know about Berezowski’s book, but I have it now and I’m going to read it. And pretty soon my students will know about it too. 🙂

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