The entry for "abandon" in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary contains the following example sentence:

He gave the order to abandon ship (= to leave the ship because it was sinking).

I wonder why this sentence does not go:

He gave the order to abandon the ship.

Especially on the background of the parenthesis "to leave the ship ..." and on the background of a grammar rule regarding the usage of the/a(n) by the Oxford Grammar app:

You cannot use singular countable nouns alone. You need a/the/my etc.

So, does this rule in actuality not always apply?

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    to abandon ship and to jump ship are idiomatic forms similar to "phrasal verbs". It's possible to include the definite article, but normally we don't. Jan 13, 2018 at 16:14
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    @FumbleFingers I agree that "abandon the ship" would be fine (though unidiomatic) but, to me, "jump the ship" would imply "jump over the ship", especially as "jump ship" is almost always used figuratively, with no actual jumping or ship involved. Even when there is a ship involved, it usually means that the person went AWOL while the ship was in port, not that they literally jumped off it and swam away. Jan 13, 2018 at 20:57
  • While I don't know how to explain it in grammatical terms, "abandon ship" is an action, like "evacuate", that's effectively a single word. "The ship" really doesn't need to be mentioned, as it's implicit in the command.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 14, 2018 at 2:38
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    This NGram plot of the two terms and some somewhat related ones may be of interest. Before 1915 the term "abandon the ship" was more common for whatever reason. ... Jan 14, 2018 at 7:51
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    ... "Abandon ship" occurs from about 1875, got a substantial boost during WW1, a larger boost during WW2, and is now about 10 times more commonly used for all purposes than "abandon the ship". Source examples showing context are available in the table at [the] bottom left of the page. Jan 14, 2018 at 7:51

2 Answers 2


As @Fumblefingers notes, "abandon ship" is akin to a "phrasal verb". While it seems to be a slightly different form of fowl, it's apparently non-standard construction 'makes sense' in the same way that phrasal verbs do.

Importantly "abandon ship" and "abandon the ship", in the manner that they are understood and used in practice, are not directly equivalent, although they are usually (but not always) closely inter-related.

With "Abandon the ship" the focus is on the ship. The people doing the abandoning will often be important in the overall order of things, but to a variable extent. When the decision was made to abandon Shackleton's ship "The Endurance" because it was irrevocably trapped in pack ice and was being slowly destroyed by ice pressure, the decision was to "abandon the ship". despite this being during a period (mid WW1) when the term "abandon ship" was in widespread use, they did NOT "abandon ship" then or at any other time in the sense almost always intended by the term. They were already living on the ice, had removed many of the stores and had already realised that the ship was probably beyond saving.

  • On October 27th Shackleton wrote, "The position was lat. 69°5'S, long. 51°30'W. The temperature was -8.5°F, a gentle southerly breeze was blowing and the sun shone in a clear sky. After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted, we are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the Expedition. It is hard to write what I feel".


"Abandon ship!" and "to abandon ship" are focused entirely on the people involved. It (usually) signifies urgent emergency action, often with danger and possible loss of life. The action may have consequences for the ship, and are usually necessitated by events relating to the ship - but "it's not about the ship".

In this Google Ngram chart

for the terms: abandon ship, abandon the ship, jump ship, heave to, heave ho

SHIFT-click on image for larger version

enter image description here

we can see a sudden peak in the term "abandon ship" in the 1914-1918 period (WW1), falling off over the next 5 years or so, then peaking again during the WW2 period, and then continuing at a much higher than WW1 level with several peaks (reason unknown to me).

Conversely "abandon the ship" had a WW1 period peak but has been fading ever since - presumably as the "abandon ship" = people-focus concept gained strength.

  • If we just compare the ratio of "abandon ship" to "abandon the ship", it's clear the article-less form has continued to gain ground against the older form since the WW2 peak in terms of the absolute number of recorded written instances. Jan 14, 2018 at 14:22
  • Out of interest, why did you include "heave to" and "heave ho"? Neither of these mean the same thing as "abandon ship", and they don't mean the same thing as each other either. Jan 14, 2018 at 17:40
  • sip -> ship ​ ​
    – user10092
    Jan 14, 2018 at 21:19

The very brief answer is that "abandon ship" is an idiom, a stock phrase. There also seems to be a convention that orders of a military or quasi-military nature tend to be succinct, e.g., "Cease fire" or "About face." If a ship is sinking, an order that is concise is better than one that is grammatical.

  • I am down voting as this answer implies that the dictionary uses an ungrammatical example.
    – user64742
    Jan 13, 2018 at 20:46
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    @DavidRicherby I would still say that is somewhat misleading. The phrase is correct in standard grammar. Its semantic meaning is different here so it merely looks incorrect.
    – user64742
    Jan 13, 2018 at 20:56
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    Yes. It's an idiom, and English has many examples of an omitted article for certain situations, often when there's a situation or process involved. Consider: He'd told me that he would be at school that day. I went to the school and he wasn't at the school. As it turned out, he was in jail. I went back to work, then drove home and got in bed. It's my personal protocol to go to bed at nine every night. Never abandon protocol.
    – Epanoui
    Jan 14, 2018 at 3:23
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    @jpmc26 I agree with that. I just do not want people to think grammar is being ignored when it does follow the rules as an idiomatic phrase.
    – user64742
    Jan 14, 2018 at 4:10
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    I'm downvoting because I don't believe the reason we discard the article in to abandon ship has anything to do with keeping military commands brief (apart from anything else, to jump ship is practically the opposite of a "military command"). I also note that Sound the alarm! is standard phrasing in contexts where brevity might be highly valued - but nobody ever says Sound alarm!, no matter how urgent the need to convey the intent as quickly as possible. Jan 14, 2018 at 14:16

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