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

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

Hi every body!
I just registered in the site and I come up with this perfect content that made the using of article "THE" crystal clear to me... but I have a question and I'll be grateful I=If anyone can answer me
here is my question :
should we use "THE" for planets? which of these three phrases above are grammatically correct?
Earth lullaby
Te Earth lullaby
or
Lullaby of The Earth

Thanks

Hi nazi.pira,

We use 'the' before the name of this planet, before 'moon' and before 'sun' but we do not use any article before the names of other planets and stars.  Thus we say 'the Earth', 'the moon' and 'the sun', but 'Saturn', 'Mars' and 'Alpha Centuri'.

It's difficult for me to say which of the three phrases would be best.  In the first two you are using 'earth' as an adjective, and so the article depends rather on the context than on the word 'earth'.  The third phrase is possible, but you could say 'A Lullaby of the Earth' or 'The Lullaby of the Earth' - again, the context is important here.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter
I got my answer , I don't want to use Earth as an adjective so the third one is the best
thank you so much for the time you spend to give me the right answer and also thanks for consideration

best wishes
nazi

Should I use definite article before "U.S" ? Or it is "the U.S.A". I know it is the United states of America but in case of abbreviations, how should I go about it?

Hello AnkitG,

You are correct: we use the definite article before abbreviations if we would use it before the normal verb.  Thus, we say:

the United States and the U.S.

the United States of America and the U.S.

the United Kingdom and the U.K.

the European Union and the E.U.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, everyone

Can anybody explain the differences between the following sentences?

1, The kangaroo is found only in Australia.

2, Kangaroos are found only in Australia.

3, A kangaroo is found only in Australia.

How do I know when to use which of these sentences?

Do native speakers care about the differences?

Thanks in advance.

Hi kochi-muso,

To talk in general about something, often no article is used (as in sentence 2). It's also possible to speak about something in general using the + a singular count noun (as in sentence 1). Among these two options, the first (sentence 2) is a bit more common in informal English.

The use of the indefinite article a in sentence 3 signals that a single example of kangaroos, i.e. one specific kangaroo, is being spoken about. As it doesn't speak about kangaroos in general, the sentence is not grammatical.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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