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.(= Joe 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

Section: 

Comments

Hello,
I have a question. Do we use the definite article with people's names when there is a job before the name? In an English grammar book there were sentences about celebrities:
The actor Colin Farrell lives in ...
Movie star Nicolas Cage has a ...
So, do we need the article or not?

Hello Goncharush,

Both of these forms are used and there is no real difference in meaning. I would say that the form with 'the' is the more common and is used in many contexts, and in both speech and writing. The form without 'the' is less common and is really only used in certain types of newspaper text and similar forms (blogs and so on). It's not a form that we would use in normal speech.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter,

Thank you for your answer. I have a similar question about articles with proper names, now not with jobs but titles. As I was taught we do not use the definite article before proper names with titles. But in Philippa Gregory's book "The King's Curse" when she writes about Princess Mary and Princess Elizabeth the author sometimes uses the definite article (the Princess Mary) and sometimes doesn't (Princess Mary). Though she never uses the article with Queens and Kings. Is there anything special about the title of princesses? Are both of these forms used? Is there any difference in meaning?

Best wishes,
Goncharush

Hello Goncharush,

There is nothing about the title 'Princess' which affects the use of articles. In normal use we do not use any articles before titles with names but there are certain unusual contexts in which it is possible For example, imagine that Princess Mary has changed during her life. When she was young she was a very optimistic person but as she got older her experiences made her more pessimistic. In this case an author might describe her as if she were two different people - two Princess Marys, so to speak - and say something like this:

The Princess Mary I knew twenty years ago would have seen the positive side of the situation, but the Princess Mary I see here sees only the negative.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter,

Thank you for your answer. I think it could explain some cases there but there are too many THE Princess Marys in this book for such an unusual context. "I will take you to Her Grace the Princess Mary", "the Princess Mary's face is turned slightly away", "I am guardian to the Princess Mary", "I go to London and visit the Princess Mary for a few weeks" and MANY other examples. Of course, there are still more without the article. Since Philippa Gregory is a British writer, I thought she had some special reasons for using and not using the article, of which I din't know.

Best wishes,
Goncharush

Hi.
Thank you Mr Peter ,i understand right now.
God blessed you all.

Hello sir,
Thank you.

Hi dear British council learning.
As we know ,useing definite article is When we want to say something about all things referred to by a noun and we use indefinite article with a singular noun to say something all things of that kind ,you know it made me confused ,that which one we should use in right situation,please make it clarify for me.
Thank you for helping.
Best wishes.

Hello Ali boroki,

As you say, we can refer to things in general with the indefinite article, the definite article and the zero article, but there are subtle differences between them.

 

a + singular countable noun

We can use this with general meaning when we are talking about something which defines the group:

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:

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:

Swedish people are tall.

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

 

The distinctions here are subtle but 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

Hello there!
while writing in English, most difficult issue for me is the use of appropriate 'article'. Do we need to use any article if something is very obvious? for example: is it correct to say 'I am not familiar with digestive system' or 'the digestive system' in a starting sentence "vulnerable groups include women, children..." or the vulnerable groups includes...."

Thanks

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