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Is there any difference between "stay the course" and "stay on (the) course"?

Is "the" necessary in "stay on (the) course"?

  1. We will stay on course rather than change course.
  2. We will stay on the course rather than change the course.
  3. We will stay on the course rather than change course.

I have noticed in definitions that the expression "stay the course" goes with the article, the, while the expression "change course" goes without the. This would imply option 3 is correct.

But I wonder whether option 1 (both expressions without the) or option 2 (both expressions with the) would be more correct in formal written English.

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    Staying THE course means seeing things through to the bitter end, for which the antonym is giving up. But changing course is about doing things differently, for which the antonym (sticking with the original plan) is staying ON course. Note that we rarely use both the article and the preposition, so to stay on the course is an unlikely combination. Apr 20 at 10:26
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    I'd say that usages involving course (metaphorically referencing a physical path, route) almost always refer to following a plan with a clear-cut "end point" (the "goal, aim" of the plan, where the "path" leads to). So none of them really work for senses like things are done as they've always been done, which is a more general reference to following tradition rather than any particular line / way / trajectory. Apr 20 at 11:09
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    Please do not change the question after someone has answered your older question. Removing "change (the) course” and variants harm Kate's good answer that was posted five hours earlier. She actually mentions "option 3" which you edited out.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 20 at 13:51
  • Stay on the course: don't hit your golf ball into the trees (or pond) :-) Apr 21 at 19:08

2 Answers 2

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Stay the course is a set phrase meaning to persevere in what you are doing. I had always assumed that it referred to a horse or athlete finishing a race, but Wikipedia suggests that the idiom originally comes from a ship remaining on its course (direction of travel).

If you change course you change from one direction of travel to another. This involves more than one course, so the definite article is not appropriate.

So, yes, your option 3 is the correct one although it appears inconsistent.

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A sailing (or other) race (that has a course) or mode of transport that follows a particular route. No "the".

  • Our boat was unable to stay on course due to the weather.
  • The plane stayed on course throughout the flight.

An idiom (no the): I wanted to complete my studies but did not stay the course.
(continue something until the end)

In English, things can often become very specific and require "the".

Question: Is "the" necessary in "stay on (the) course"?

Yes, sometimes when it is qualified:

  • Did the motorbike racers stay on the actual course laid out on the map?
  • The boats did not stay on the course we agreed on for the race.

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