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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

Dear Teacher,
Hello.
First, let me thank all the experts for their support and guidance.
I have the following three questions:
. 1. I read somewhere that 'the' is not used with 'Indians' as the word ends in 'ian'. However, many people use 'the' with 'Indians'. Could you please shed light on it?

2: During childhood, I was taught to use 'the' with 'Hindus' and ' Muslims'. However, many times, people use these two words without 'the'. I have always used 'the' with Hindus/Muslims in my assignments. Since we drop 'the' after 'both'... Shall I write "both the Hindus and the Muslims" (Considering it to be a special case!) Or "both the Hindus and Muslims" Or "both Hindus and Muslims" in a sentence.

3. How is 'a first time' different from 'the first time'?

Regards,

Raj

Hello Raj

It's really difficult to make generalizations about definite articles because they are so contextual. It's also possible that the use of definite article with such important groups is a little different in India than in the UK due to the different political and social situation.

Following on this idea, I'm guessing (but don't really know for sure) that the rules you speak of in questions 1 and 2 are based on semantics more than grammar. In other words, if you say 'the Hindus', some might say that it makes it sound as if you're talking about all Hindus without exception. In a country with so many religions and ethnicities, this kind of thinking can promote division rather than unity. But this is not really a grammatical rule; it's a guideline for usage based on what the grammar can be interpreted to mean.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a time when you'd say 'a first time'. By definition, there is only one first time. You could say 'a first-time batter', but here 'first-time' is an adjective in a noun phrase, not an entire noun phrase by itself.

I hope this helps.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

My student wrote this:
'On the other hand, there is another measure that should be taken into account which is the price of the public transport. If the public transport were cheaper a considerable amount of people would use it.'

I corrected the use of 'the' before public transport. How would you best explain why? I wanted to share your page with him but then I couldn't explain the note that the article is usually used before a system or a service.

I'd very much appreciate your thoughts.

Hello Sheryn

Here 'public transport' is being spoken about in general. The note about systems and services only applies when you're talking about using the service. For example, we can say 'I heard it on the radio' to speak about using the radio service, but when speaking in general about the service, we say 'Radio needs to be innovative to survive in the Internet age'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,which variant is correct?
The Coleridge's hotel or Colridge's hotel
The Norvich museum or Norvich museum

Hello _princess_,

Generally, we use the before the names of museums, galleries and hotels, as well as bars and restaurants:

The Louvre

The Natural History Museum

The Grand (Hotel)

The Queen's Head (pub)

 

However, when there is a name (often the owner's name) with an apostrophe we do not use an article:

Paddy's Bar

Joe's Grill and Restaurant

 

As far as your examples go, I would expect that the forms would be as follows:

The Coleridge Hotel [without the 's unless Coleridge is the name of the owner]

The Norvich Museum

However, these are my expectations. Exceptions are always possible.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir/Madam,
How do the following two sentences convey different meanings:
a. "The book resonates with the historical past and the contemporary politics."
b. "The book resonates with the historical past and contemporary politics."

In other words, could you please let me know how the insertion of article 'the' before ‘contemporary politics’ change the meaning?
Thanks.
Raj

Hello Raj

It seems odd to me to use 'the' here, but I suppose it refers to the historical period referred to. It's difficult to say for sure without knowing the context. 'contemporary' can also refer to now, i.e. the time of speaking -- as in sentence b, today's politics -- or it can refer to the time period of a past period. You can see examples of both in the Cambridge Dictionary.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

The 'the' is the most difficult grammar rule for me, even as for the phrase like 'in THE bottom', 'in THE hands of', 'THE Netherlands' ...etc.

Thank you for the teaching about the definite article. I like this kind of explanation! :)

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