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

Hi people! It's me again!

The previous lesson stated this:

5. We use a/an with a singular noun to say something about all things of that kind:

A man needs friends. (= All men need friends)
A dog likes to eat meat. (= All dogs like to eat meat)

And this lesson states this:

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)

What is the difference?

Hi EnglishZenon,

This is a complex area. In fact it is possible for all three options (the zero article, the indefinite article and the definite article) to be used with general meaning. However, 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 good people!

Is my usage of "the" correct in this sentence and why? I think it is but I'm not sure why. It always confuses me when "the" stands before the adjective.

"I've encountered a sentence similar to this one in some of the future lessons."

Also, is "usage" the correct word/ form of the word to be used in that question and why?

Is the first "the" properly used in the previous question and why?

Thank you very much!

"The" is the thing that confuses me in English the most. I always feel like I'm using it too often, even when I'm not supposed to.

Hello EnglishZenon,

It's hard to say for sure without knowing the full context and what you mean exactly, but yes, 'the' seems correct in that sentence because you seem to be referring to some lessons that are coming in the future. By using 'the' you are showing that it's clear which ones they are. Perhaps they are the next lessons in the book, for example.

Yes, 'usage' is correct and 'the' is also.

Despite being one of the most frequently used words in English, 'the' is one of the most difficult to learn to use properly, partly because it is used in so many different contexts!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sirs, thank you for you incredible help and patience. The following is the very first sentence in an academic book published by CUP: "the idea of civil society infiltrates all efforts to assess the possibilities and threats revealed by the glacial political shits at the turn of the century."
I am interested in knowing what is the justification for the use of the definite article 'the' in front of possibilities and glacial political shifts? how does its meaning change if I do not use the definite article the:

"the idea of civil society infiltrates all efforts to assess possibilities and threats revealed by glacial political shits at the turn of the century."

Will the second sentence still be grammatically correct?
Thank you very much.

Hello cbenglish,

Using 'the' signals that the writer is referring to possibilities and threats that they have already referred to in some way. It would be possible to omit 'the' here; it would slightly change the meaning by implying the full range of possibilities and threats that exist -- not just a specific set that have already been mentioned.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Many thanks, Kirk. But the issue here is that I am referring to the very first sentence of the book in the introduction section and the author has not discussed anything about those possibilities before. Also, why did the author use a the in front of glacial political shits? Again, nothing has been discussed about any political shifts before since it's the very first sentence of the book.

Is it possible that the author is assuming that the readers know the specific meaning of those political shifts? Is it common in academic English?

Hello cbenglish,

I suppose by using 'the', the writer assumes that the reader knows which possibilities and threats she or he is referring to. 'shifts' (note it is 'shifts', not 'shits') is plural -- 'a' is only used before singular count nouns.

Please note that although we try to help our users with whatever questions they have, we have a policy of not commenting on content that comes from outside our site. This is because we don't have enough context or because sometimes they are even erroneous. In this case, it's not an error, but I was answering as best I could without any idea of the context. Explaining why a writer uses specific words without knowing the context is quite difficult, and to do it well requires quite a lot of time -- time we typically do not have for this sort of thing considering that we provide this service for free.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello respected team,

In the article there is the following example: Look at the boy in the blue shirt over there. So, I am wondering what the difference is between that sentence and "Look at the boy in blue shirt over there."

Thanks!!

Hello Student2018,

The sentence is not correct without 'the'.

Articles depend upon context. We use 'the' when both the speaker and the listener can identify specifically which item is being described. Thus:

a blue shirt describes any blue shirt - it does not refer to any blue shirt in particular but rather any shirt which is blue.

the blue shirt describes a particular blue shirt - it refers only to one specific blue shirt and not any others; the speaker and listener need to either see it or have seen it, or have talked about it before.

 

In your example the speaker and listener can see the boy and his shirt, so it is clear that the speaker is referring to a specific, concrete and particular blue shirt and not to any other.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Pages