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The definite article: 'the'

Level: beginner

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 listener/reader knows exactly what we are referring to:

  • because there is only one:

The Pope is visiting Russia.
The moon is very bright tonight.
Who is the president of France?

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 context:

We live in a small house 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 over there. (= the boy I am pointing at)

  • because we have already mentioned it:

A young man got a nasty shock when he tried to rob a jewellery shop in Richmond. The man used a heavy hammer to smash the windows in the shop.

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.
She is learning the 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.

The definite article the 1

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The definite article the 2

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The definite article the 3

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Level: intermediate

We can also use the definite article with adjectives like rich, poor, elderly and 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.

 

 

Level: beginner

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 Bhutan
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 (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
  • organisations:
the United Nations the Seamen's Union
  • hotels, pubs and restaurants:
the Ritz the Ritz Hotel the King's Head the Déjà Vu

But note that we do not use the definite article if the name of the hotel or restaurant is the name of the owner:

Brown's Brown's Hotel Morel's Morel's Restaurant
  • families:
the Obamas the Jacksons
The definite article with names 1

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The definite article with names 2

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The definite article with names 3

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The definite article with names 4

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Comments

Hello Bobi Learner

'the' can be used to refer to singular or plural nouns. In both of the sentences you ask about, 'the' comes before a plural noun ('leaders', 'Jews', 'Romans').

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear teacher,

1. "It suppresses personal interests of man." Is 'the' required before 'personal' when 'man' is used for men in general?
2. "He was whipped in face." Is 'the' required before 'face'?
3. "at global level" or "at the global level"?
4. "Western civilization centres on the society" Is 'the' required before 'western' and 'society'?
5. "It encompasses ideal lifestyle." Is 'an' required before 'ideal lifestyle'?

Thank You.
Raj

Dear teacher,

Hello.

"Cow is a sacred animal." Here, I find 'cow' without 'a' or 'the' quite unusual. However, many people use concrete singular countable nouns without any article. For example, "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (Mary Wollstonecraft). Here, "Woman" in used without any article. Is it grammatically acceptable? I haven't found a rule related to it in any book of grammar. Could you please shed some light on it.

Thanks.

Raj

Hello Raj,

It's possible to use women or woman in Wollstonecraft's title. In fact, she previous wrote a text entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Both forms have a general meaning.

The sentence with cow is not grammatical. You could use a plural form without an article, the definite article or the indefinite article here. All can have a general meaning, but there are differences. It is a complex area but here are the rules:

 

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 distinctions are subtle but sometimes 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 complex area.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,
In 'The definite article with names " exercise, what do you mean by particular islands and mountains and why we don't use an article with it? and how is it different from "geographical features, such as mountain ranges, groups of islands, rivers, seas, oceans and canals"?
Thanks

Hello H_L

Sorry about the confusion. When we say 'particular islands', what we mean is an island (e.g. Guadeloupe, Menorca) and not a group of islands (e.g. the Bahamas); similarly 'particular mountains' refers to a specific mountain (e.g. Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro) and not mountain ranges (e.g. the Himalayas, the Appalachians). In the exercise, these two options therefore go in the first group, since 'the' is not used with such place names.

Hope this helps.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello H_L

As the rules above explain, it's true of several different kinds of name places. There's a difference between a mountain ('Mount Everest') and a mountain range ('the Himalayas'), which is a group of mountains that we see as belonging in a group. The same is true of islands.

Yes, 'the' is always used with oceans, seas, rivers and canals.

If you'd like to read another explanation of this, please see this Cambridge Dictionary page (look for the section called 'Places').

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear teachers
Why in in the first sentence we don’t use “the” before “ power” but in the second one we do?
1-The voters have once again shown their support for the party in power.
2- The immense power on television.

In this example, why not; expansion of power..., or the expansion of the power...,
“ But this can be detrimental to the business of imperialism when the laws require things like due process and the right of the native population to be recognized as equal under the rule of law. Such laws run counter to imperialism’s main goal: the expansion of power and profit.“

Hello amin.sharifi

We don't normally explain the use of articles from other websites, but here I'd say since there is only one main goal, 'the' is used. 'power' is general here -- it can refer to all kinds of power I think -- and so 'the' would limit the meaning of the word too much.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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