definite article: the

 

The definite article the is the most frequent word in English.

We use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe the hearer/reader knows exactly what we are referring to.

• because there is only one:

The Pope is visiting Russia.
The moon is very bright tonight.
The Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979.

This is why we use the definite article with a superlative adjective:

He is the tallest boy in the class.
It is the oldest building in the town.

• because there is only one in that place or in those surroundings:

We live in a small village next to the church.  =  (the church in our village)
Dad, can I borrow the car? = (the car that belongs to our family)
When we stayed at my grandmother’s house we went to the beach every day.  =  (the beach near my grandmother’s house)
Look at the boy in the blue shirt over there.  = (the boy I am pointing at)

 
• because we have already mentioned it:

A woman who fell 10 metres from High Peak was lifted to safety by a helicopter. The woman fell while climbing.
The rescue is the latest in a series of incidents on High Peak. In January last year two men walking on the peak were killed in a fall. 

We also use the definite article:

• to say something about all the things referred to by a noun:

The wolf is not really a dangerous animal (= Wolves are not really dangerous animals)
The kangaroo is found only in Australia (= Kangaroos are found only in Australia)
The heart pumps blood around the body. (= Hearts pump blood around bodies)

We use the definite article in this way to talk about musical instruments:

Joe plays the piano really well.(= George can play any piano)
She is learning the guitar.(= She is learning to play any guitar)

• to refer to a system or service:

How long does it take on the train.
I heard it on the radio.
You should tell the police.

• With adjectives like rich, poor, elderly, unemployed to talk about groups of people:

Life can be very hard for the poor.
I think the rich should pay more taxes.
She works for a group to help the disabled.

The definite article with names:

We do not normally use the definite article with names:

William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.
Paris is the capital of France.
Iran is in Asia.

But we do use the definite article with:

countries whose names include words like kingdom, states or republic:

the United Kingdom; the kingdom of Nepal; the United States; the People’s Republic of China.

countries which have plural nouns as their names:

the Netherlands; the Philippines

geographical features, such as mountain ranges, groups of islands, rivers, seas, oceans and canals:

the Himalayas; the Canaries; the Atlantic; the Atlantic Ocean; the Amazon; the Panama Canal.

newspapers:

The Times; The Washington Post

• well known buildings or works of art:

the Empire State Building; the Taj Mahal; the Mona Lisa; the Sunflowers

organisations:

the United Nations; the Seamen’s Union

hotels, pubs and restaurants*:

the Ritz; the Ritz Hotel; the King’s Head; the Déjà Vu

*Note: We do not use the definite article if the name of the hotel or restaurant is the name of the owner, e.g.,Brown’s; Brown’s Hotel; Morel’s; Morel’s Restaurant, etc.

families:

the Obamas; the Jacksons

Exercise

Comments

Hello everyone,
I've got a grammatical question regarding the definite article 'the':
Definite article before of-phrases. I've got quite confused using this phrase; for example, The learning of the third language provides an interesting context for research vs Learning of the third language… (without the definite article ‘the’). I’ve faced a lot of examples like this, interestingly, even in the same book on different pages, one with definite article ‘the’ and the other one or other ones without it!
I've found it rather personal, that is, it depends on the author to whether use it or drop it. I've asked some of my professors holding PhD in TEFL, and they've had the same idea. They say if you ask me whether we should use the definite article in an of-phrase, we can say whether it is necessary to use it, but we do not know why!
I would be grateful if you could clarify the difference between using and not using the definite article ‘the’ in of-phrases, if there is any of course! That is, whether it makes any difference, in meaning, to use it or not use it.
Thank you in advance,
Reza

Hello Reza,

I'm not sure the 'of-phrases' are key to this. Isn't this just another example of different types of articles when describing something? For example, 'The lion is a big cat' and 'Lions are big cats'.

Most of the team are on holiday at the moment and so I'm very busy looking after LearnEnglish on my own. If I have time to think more about your question, I'll reply again, but you might have to wait a few weeks until we're all back at work.

Best wishes,

Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Adam,
No, 'of-phrases' is whole another story. The definite article 'the' in 'of-phrases' seeks to define the following 'of-phrase'. But sometimes it is used, while other times not! (as in my example) Because of what? A mystery to me! I've searched a lot on the Internet, and I've found some reasons, but those reasons are specific to that special situation and cannot be generalised.
Am I required to remind you to answer my question in the next few weeks? Because you're busy managing LearnEnglish and may forget to answer my question.
Regards,
Reza

Hello Reza2014,

As Adam implies, and as your example shows, the presence of an of-phrase does not guarantee that the definite article is necessary. As you know, we use the definite article when we believe the hearer/reader knows exactly what we are referring to and an of-phrase often, but not always, defines the noun sufficiently precisely to make this the case.

A further question is how we see the item being discussed - are we talking in general/abstract terms (in which case the zero article is likely) or about a concrete and specific case (in which case the definite article is likely)? Our use of articles is often dependent on not only the noun and particular sentence structure, but also the context, our intention, how we see the topic and what we know or believe about our audience.

Given these variables, I think you can see why the speaker often has a choice as to whether or not to use the article. In many cases, as you have said, both options are possible and only in a clear given context, with knowledge of the speaker and listener's relationship to each other and their knowledge of the topic, can we analyse why the article was used or not. Analysing bare sentences without this knowledge is not really possible - all we can do in that case is to identify numerous possibilities which may or may not be true (such as the topic being familar to both, or the discussion referring to a specific case, or the case being contrasted to an earlier mentioned case etc.). Such analysis is simply an exercise in guesswork as the question is not a question of rules but a question of context and individual choice.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Reza,

No, you are not required to remind us to answer your question. Please also note that we are not required to answer your question. LearnEnglish has millions of users and although we enjoy tackling interesting language questions, we are a small team and our priority is to produce new materials that are useful for the majority of users. As I said before, when the full team is working one of us may have time to look again at your question.

If you want a quicker answer, you may have to find a linguist for hire!

Best wishes,

Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi. Why should I use "the" here - "in the stadium" but here -"in a museum" - should I use "a"?
Can I use "the" in both cases?

Hello IVVY,

It's possible to use both 'a' and 'the' with both of these phrases. Whether you should use 'a' or 'the' depends on the context and on what you want to say. If you say 'the stadium', you believe that the listener knows which stadium you're referring to; if you say 'a stadium', it hasn't yet been specified, or is unspecific.

This is all explained in more detail above on this page.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, I want to ask about the difference between using definite article 'The' to say something about all the things referred to by a noun and using indefinite article 'A' with a singular noun to say something about all things of that kind.

Hi marwaadel89,

This is a complex question as the distinctions are very subtle.  In general:

a + singular countable noun - we can use this with general meaning when we are talking about something which defines the group.  For example:

An elephant is an impressive sight.

In other words, being an impressive sight is one of the characteristics of an elephant; if we saw an animal and it was not impressive then we could be fairly sure that it was not an elephant.  We are talking about any elephant here - it is true of them all.

the + singular noun - we can use this with general meaning when we are talking about our image or concept of the noun.  For example:

The elephant can live for over sixty years.

Here we are not talking about a real elephant, but rather the concept of 'elephant' in our heads.

no article + plural countable noun or uncountable noun - we use this to talk about what is normal or typical of a type.  It may or may not be true of all individuals but it is typical of most.  For example:

Swedish people are tall.

Here we are talking about the average height of Swedes, not any particular person or concept.

The distinction is subtle, as I said, but sometimes it can be important.  For example, we can say with general meaning:

Whales are in danger of becoming extinct.

The whale is in danger of becoming extinct.

However, we cannot say:

A whale is in danger of becoming extinct.

This is because being in danger of becoming extinct may be true but it does not define the whale.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.  It is a difficult area, as I said.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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