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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 all, can you please tell me whether to use definite article before proper nouns like Big Ben, London Eye, Westminster Bridge?
many thanks

can you explain use of the with classroom

In my opinion what can be expected is a change of the teachers’ role, but not their disappearance from the classroom.

Hello Sourav Bhatia,

This is an example of using the definite article for general representation.

We can use the indefinite article, the definite article and the zero article with general meaning, but there are some differences.

 

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. This is the reason for the use of 'the' in your example.

 

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, do you use definite article 'the' with the names of countries like Yaman like The Yaman, the Sudan, the Argentine, the Hague, the Lebanon, the Crimea, the Senegal, the Kameroon, the Congo, the Ukraine? Are these true according to English grammar? And one more question, do you the with the names of waterfalls? Is there a rule about it?

Hello Royanabiyeva,

It's true that in the past, 'the' was often used with some of the other place names in your list, but as far as I know, the only one of the places where 'the' is used by most people these days is 'the Hague'. I expect you could find exceptions to what I've just said, however. I'd suggest you check an encyclopedia as an example of correct use.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi.
I'm really appreciated your content.
By the way, I have a question.

1. Let's go to the beach. -> In this sentence, do people know which beach it is? If it's not an exact beach, Can I use a beach?

2. I love August ; I go to the beach with Danny.
-> If I just like going beach, Can I use a beach??

It's so confusing.. :(

Please answer my question.

Hi ahrene,

There are two possible meanings of the beach here.

  1. It's a particular beach, and people know which one the speaker means (as you correctly mentioned). For example, maybe the speakers go regularly to one particular beach, or there is only one beach in the local area.
  2. It has a generic meaning. The beach represents the whole class of beaches (i.e., all beaches or any beach). This is similar to the "to say something about all the things referred to by a noun" in the explanation above. In this case, the speaker doesn't indicate a particular beach. This may be because the speaker has no preference (any beach is OK). Or, maybe the speaker just wants to check the listener's general feeling about the beach first, and intends to discuss details of the beach trip later in the conversation.

Yes! It's also possible to say a beach here too in both your sentences, meaning 'any beach' and not a particular beach.

Does that make sense? There are a lot of options :)

We answer questions as soon as we can, but at busy times it may take us a little more time!

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

The article the with families like 'the Obamas'. Could you tell me it is wrong when I write the Obama's (with the apostrophe)? Thanks a lot.

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