When applied to people, titles are words that describe a person’s role or position in society, usually replacing a person’s first name. One might refer to Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, as President Lincoln or Mr. Lincoln. Formal titles like President and Mr. are considered part of a name. 

But a common writing practice is to use short descriptions in place of formal titles. One often sees phrases like “American president Abraham Lincoln” and “classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach.” In these cases, we at the MLA place “the” before the description that is used in place of a title: “the American president Abraham Lincoln” and “the classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach.”

The reason is that similar phrases without the word the sound awkward. For instance, “I just watched French film Amélie.” The phrase “French film” is a description, so it needs the before it: “I just watched the French film Amélie.” The practice of dropping the before descriptions used as titles of persons likely arose in print journalism, where economy of words is important. But in formal, expository writing, we recommend that writers include the word the.


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Joseph Wallace

Joseph Wallace copyedits articles for PMLA and writes posts for the Style Center. He received a PhD in English literature from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before coming to the Modern Language Association, he edited articles for Studies in Philology and taught courses on writing and early modern literature.