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

Comments

Hello Sir
Re: definite article 'the'
I heard it on the radio. Is it alright to say I saw it on the TV or I saw it on TV but
Switch off the TV.
Please let me know.
Thank you.
Regards
Lal

Hello Lal,

You can say

I saw it on TV or I saw it on the TV

 

However, when we refer to the TV as a machine we need to use an article. This is generally the definite article because we are talking about a particular TV (our own or the one in the room).

I turned the TV off.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Sir,
Iam confused with these statements, please clarify the exact difference and the usage
1. Definite article THE is used to say something about all the things referred to by a noun
Eg: the wolf is not a dangerous animal
2. We use a/an with a singular noun to say something about all things of that kind
Eg: A dog likes to eat meat
My question is if I say A wolf is not a dangerous animal, it means all wolves are not dangerous animals..
Then, what is the difference between using A or THE before wolf when both are having same meaning

Thanks in advance

Hello Hari4171,

We can use the indefinite article, the definite article and the zero article for general meaning, but there are some differences between them. I'll explain this first, and then addess your particular example.

 

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.

 

With regard to your example, I think certainly the wolf and wolves are possible forms. The indefinite article depends upon the point of view of the speaker. If you consider non-dangerous behaviour to be part of what it is to be a wolf then a wolf is also possible.

 

I hope that helps to clarify it for you. It is a complex area.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, I have a quick question. when I speak about Buckingham Palace, do I use the definite article?

Hello adelina,

Buckingham Palace is a proper name and so there is no article used before it.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello.
I have a question about the word "the" in certain circumstances. Below is an example.

1. I cringe when I see adults with grammar skills of a child.
2. I cringe when I see adults with the grammar skills of a child.

Is the use of "the" in the 2nd sentence required or optional?

Thanks.

Hello Sideout02,

The definite article is required. The noun is grammar skills and the phrase of a child defines which grammar skills, so a definite article is required.

If the defining phrase is omitted then we are talking about grammar skills in general and no article is needed:

It makes me happy to see young children with (good/advanced) grammar skills.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sir,
I want to know the difference in these sentences as they are denoting a class and one statement contains 'the' and other one not
1. Dogs are faithful.
2. The apples are red.
Thank you

Hello Devesh Raj

Peter wrote a lengthy explanation of this in another comment -- please follow the link to see his explanation there.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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