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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

GapFillDragAndDrop_MTU3MDU

The definite article the 3

GapFillTyping_MTU3MDY

 

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

 GapFillTyping_MTU3MDg=

The definite article with names 3

GapFillTyping_MTU3MDk=

The definite article with names 4

GapFillTyping_MTU3MTA=

 

Comments

Remember: most times article usage is neither correct nor incorrect, but depends on what you wish to express.
 
Examples:
Chicken = meat from a chicken (presumably for eating)
The chicken = a specific bird known as a chicken, or some portion of specific meat from a bird known as a chicken
A chicken = a whole bird (perhaps not ready for eating, or not meant to be eaten)
 
"I have chicken in the refrigerator.  It came from a chicken that we raised for years and had grown very attached to."
 
"The chicken in the refrigerator comes from a chicken that we had grown attached to."
 
Grass = green stuff that we often see in parks (herbaceous plants with narrow leaves - wiki)
The grass = specific grass growing from the ground
A grass = one of the numerous varieties of grasses
 
"Chickens that eat grass usually produce superior eggs, if the grass (that they eat) is not overly fertilized."
 
"Usually, the grass that you find on a beach is on protected land."
 
"We found a very strange grass on the beach."
 
"If you prefer, we can sit on the grass instead of the bench."
 
Beach = a type of land, near a body of water
The beach = some specific parcel of beach
A beach = one beach
 
"All of the land at the rear of the house is beach. Furthermore, all of the beach between the two posts is your private beach."
 
"The house was located on nothing but beach.  It was beach as far as the eye could see.  I now have an entirely different perspective whenever I go to a beach."
 
"That's the beach.  As expected, it is beach, beach, and only beach."

Even as a native speaker, this can be tricky to explain, especially as (the!) language changes (see my original question).
To try and illustrate the problem: ''I like to sit on the beach'' just sounds right, whereas ''I like to sit on beach'' sounds wrong. However, it can be more complicated: if you say ''I like to sit on the grass'' this could imply a more specific location.
You could say, ''I like to sit on sand'' or ''I like to sit on pebbles'' meaning that you prefer this in general.
If you say, ''I like to sit on grass'' then this means you like to sit on grass in general - as opposed to, say, sitting on sand or concrete. If you were going to the park, you would always say, ''I'm going to sit on the grass''. You wouldn't say, ''I'm going to sit on grass''.

Is use of the definite article changing? We always used to say The Titanic and The Congo but the BBC now just says Titanic and Congo.

Wonderful,
I have two questions to make.
"I will climb the Everest in the Himalayas tomorrow"
Can I put 'the' before Everest?
"I will climb the mount Everest in the Himalayas tomorrow"
Is this correct?

no answers :(

Hello Barathee,
Don't worry, we will get to your question as soon as we can. There are lots of comments on LearnEnglish, but we have a list of all the ones that need answers and plan to answer them all.
Best wishes,
Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

Wonderful Adam,
Thanks

Is it correct to write "News from the Music World" , "News from Music World" or do we have to use "News from Music's World"? I'm very confused about it, could someone help me?
Thanks in advance.
 

Hi Adam,
I’ve been preparing a learning unit about racism in the United States. The first part is about its historical background. The passage reads as follow:
“The European colonists who went to America at the beginning of the 17th century needed a lot of people to work on their land and build houses. So they bought slaves, mainly from Africa. The journey to America was terrible and dangerous. The slaves travelled on over-crowded ships and many died from disease and poor food before they reached the New World. When the slaves arrived in America, slave traders took them to markets, where they were bought and sold, mostly to the cotton and tobacco plantation owners.”
I’ve got some doubt about the last sentence: I think the first definite article (the slaves) is correct. It refers back to “the slaves mainly bought in Africa”. I wonder if it is correct to use a definite article before “slave traders”. And is the one before “cotton and tobacco plantation owners” correct?
Thanks a lot.
WW

Hi Walt,
I think the best way to think about articles is that they are communicating to the reader (or listener) whether you think something is shared knowledge or new information.
You're correct about 'the slaves', since you are already talking about them. As for 'slave traders' and 'cotton and plantation owners', you can put a definite article in front of them if you think that the reader will already be know about or have deduced their existence. At the moment, you appear to be assuming the reader knows about cotton and tobacco plantation owners, but not about slave traders. Personally, I'd either use articles for both or neither.
Best wishes,
Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

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