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


The definite article the 2


The definite article the 3



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 elderly.



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


The definite article with names 2


The definite article with names 3


The definite article with names 4



Average: 4.6 (86 votes)

Hello Andres_b,

I think the difference here is that 'old-fashioned jazz' and 'the machine industry' are different kinds of categories. There are probably different versions of each category, but there are probably lots of different versions of the category 'old-fashioned jazz'.

'the machine industry', in contrast, is (as far as I know) more well defined. It strikes me as a category used by specialists and is therefore more singular, i.e. there is only one.

I hope that makes sense and that it helps.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Mr.Kirk,
First thank you for your reply, I am agree with you in the case number one, but in the case number 2 I want to know how is the old-fashioned jazz a general kind of jazz. I think it is specific.

Submitted by knownman on Sat, 06/08/2022 - 18:05


Hello guys,
I would like to ask a question about the paragraph given below. If you could kindly answer I will be happy:

The fact is that the cooking wasn't complete so they didn't have anything to eat so that means that while the past continuous shows us a long continuing action that is in progress at a specific moment IN THE PAST, the past perfect continuous shows us a long continuing action that isn't necessarily in progress at a specific moment IN PAST.

My question is that, why is there an article "the" in one of the phrase as there is no in the other one? I have difficulties of understanding of the article 'the'.

Thanks for the answer.
Take care of all the team.

Hi knownman,

Do you mean "IN THE PAST" and "IN PAST"? It must be a typing error. "In the past" is the correct version. :)


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan,
Thanks for the answer and yes I meant those phrases written in capital letters.
I wonder that if the native English speakers make mistakes about the article "the"? I feel like they don't care so much about it, even in an academic writing and speaking. As I mentioned in my first question I have been having issues of understanding of the article "the" especially when I speak. I am aware of that acquiring a language is a process that takes some time. But if you can give an another perspective about the below question I will be more appreciated.

What is the situation of native speakers using the article the? Do they underestimate of using it?
Thanks in advance for your answer.

Take care.

Hello knownman,

I agree with Jonathan: surely the writer meant 'in the past' (which would be correct). 'in past' is not correct there, though it is possible when 'past' is an adjective (e.g. 'They were successful on past attempts').

Ultimately we can't explain another person's writing, but I strongly suspect the writer unintentionally left out a word here. It's very common for anyone to leave out a word or misspell it when writing. I myself have done this many times; sometimes I catch the mistakes and correct them, but sometimes I don't. I expect that's what happened here.

In general, native speakers don't make mistakes with 'the'. I can certainly understand how native speaker usage of the definite article can seem inconsistent, but I'd say that in 99% of cases it is not. I think the best thing you can do as a learner is to read lots of texts and study instances that you have a hard time making sense of. You could also read through comments others have made on this page and our responses to them.

And be sure to patient! It really does take most people quite some time to feel more confident about them, and it's unusual never to make a mistake with them as a non-native.

I hope this helps.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sajatadib on Thu, 04/08/2022 - 19:03


Hello there.I was wondering about scientific terms such as global warming, climate change , etc.For instance: How should we tackle climate change?
Please help me out here,Is the definite article needed in front of climate change? Thanks in advance.

Hello Sajatadib,

No, in general no article is needed before 'climate change'. You might want to have a look at a major online newspaper and search for 'climate change'. I'm sure you'll find several articles where you can see how the phrase is used in different ways.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sajatadib on Tue, 02/08/2022 - 16:00


Hello good teachers.I would appreciate it if you could help me with this.I read a headline: How the British took over India.My question is what should we do with nationalities(here British)? with or without the definite article?

Hi Sajatadib,

Good question! The definite article is used correctly here. With some nationality adjectives, we can use "the" + adjective to mean the whole group of people. For example, "the British" means "British people" or "Britons". This can be done with:

  • adjectives ending in -sh (e.g. the British, the Spanish)
  • adjectives ending in -ch (e.g. the Dutch, the French)
  • adjectives ending in -ese (e.g. the Chinese, the Portuguese)
  • adjectives ending in -ss (e.g. the Swiss)

This cannot be done with all adjectives. For example, to mean "Canadian people", we can only say "the Canadians" (not "the Canadian").

I hope that helps.


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Hassan on Thu, 14/07/2022 - 22:20


Hello teachers
may I know what I can use when I talk in general:
1-"People in Canada are kind" or "The people in Canada are kind".
2-"Restaurants in my city are good" or "The restaurants in my city are good".
3-"Boys in my class are clever" or "The boys in my class are clever".
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Hassan,

We use 'the' (the definite article) when we are specifying which item or groups of items we are talking about, and we use no article when we are talking about concepts or general categories. When we have a very large group, such as everyone in a country, we can speak of them as a general category, but when the group is very small this is not possible. So in part it depends on the size of the group.

Looking at your examples one by one:

1) Both forms are possible. You can talk in general about people as this is a very large group, but you can also use 'the' because the phrase 'in Canada' specifies which people you are talking about.

2) Here I think 'the' is more likely as the group size is not so large.

3) Here I think 'the' is required. Your class is not big enough to treat its boys as a general category.



The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 07/07/2022 - 12:07


Hello. Could you please help me? I think both articles are OK in the following sentence, right? If not, why please.
- Naguib Mahfouz was a pioneer in (the - no article) Arabic Literature.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

No article is correct here; 'the' is not correct. It would indeed make sense to use 'the' here, but when we're speaking about the entire corpus of literature in a language, we don't use any article. 'Mahfouz was a pioneer in Arabic Literature', 'Don Quixote is the greatest work in all of Spanish literature', etc. I'm not sure why this is, but it is the case.

When, however, the word 'literature' refers to research that has been written on a topic, it's correct to use 'the' to refer to it. This is quite common in academic papers. For example, if I were writing an article about Naguib Mahfouz and wanted to speak about all of the academic papers that had been written about him, I could say something like 'All of the literature agrees that his exploration of existential themes is ...' Here 'the literature' refers to all of the secondary academic papers (whatever language they were written in), not to the primary sources.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by B H A R T I on Wed, 06/07/2022 - 12:21


_watch tells us _time. which article should be used here? and why.

Hello Bharti,

Assuming that this is a definition, the correct articles are 'a' and 'the': 'A watch tells us the time.'

A definition introduces a new topic and so that is why we generally use 'a' instead of 'the'. The plural is also sometimes used ('Watches tell us the time'), but that doesn't seem to be an option here and the use of the singular is more common I'd say.

As for 'the time', when we're asking or speaking about clock time, we generally use 'the'. This is not an absolute rule, but is true in most cases.

If you are doing intensive study of articles, I'd suggest that you analyse sentences within context -- in other words, within paragraphs or texts that are longer than a single sentence. This is because which article is correct depends a lot on the situation, and with just a single sentence there often isn't enough information about the situation.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team


Submitted by Ahmed Hassan on Fri, 19/11/2021 - 18:07


Hello Teachers
I find some words written with and without a definite article such as "water" and "air". is there any difference?

Hello Ahmed Hassan,

We use 'the' when we are talking about something identified and specific. For example:

"There is water on the floor. What happened?"
"I spilt it when I was making some tea. Don't worry - I'll mop up the water."

The speaker says 'the water' in the second sentence because he or she knows which water they are talking about - it has already been identified.

Obviously, the use of 'the' depends on the context and how much information is shared between the speakers.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again, Teacher.
I mean when we talk about the words "water" and "air" in general, do we say "in water / in air" or "in the water/ in the air", for example, "How long can you hold your breath in the water?" and "How long can you fly a kite in the air ?".

Hello again Ahmed Hassan,

The phrases here would be a little different. We would most often say 'under water' and 'in the sky':

> How long can you hold your breath under water?
> How long can you fly a kite in the sky?

There are other possibilities but I think these are the most frequently used. 'Water' here is general rather than specific. 'The sky' is used because in this context we are thinking of the sky as a single thing which covers the whole world.

Articles are a rule-based grammatical system but there are also a lot of collocations and fixed expressions involved, so not every example can be explained with a clear grammatical rule.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Peter M. I see your sentence use "would" two times. Could you explain how it works?

The phrases here would be a little different. We would most often say 'under water' and 'in the sky':

Hello Selet,

When we reply in this way we are imagining a context in which the person might use the language, so there is an implied condition: If you wanted to say... you would use...



The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks, Peter M. You use "in which" in your sentence. Does it mean "where?"

When we reply in this way we are imagining a context in which the person might use the language

Hello again Selet,

Yes, that's correct. There are a number of prepositional forms like this. Here are some examples:

  • a place in/at which > where
  • a time during/before/after which > when
  • a person to/from whom > who



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by caprio_boy on Tue, 09/11/2021 - 18:41


Kindly explain the following article:
"The" Wright brothers,
Wright brothers is a proper noun yet we write "the" infornt of it. Does it needed?

Hello caprio_boy,

Yes, that is correct. In this case, it's as if we're speaking about the Wright family.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Crokong on Mon, 01/11/2021 - 03:51


the words like "restaurant, pub, shop, bank" when they is used with "the", I think they don't describe an specific example, but rather refer to an action although the listener doesn't know which restaurant/bank/shop/ I'm going to. For example, there is more than one of them, and I say to my friend that I'm going to the pub/bank/shop, etc, clearly he/she doesn't know which pub/bank/shop/restaurant I'm going to.

What do you think about this point, sir?

Hello Crokong,

Articles are highly context-dependent, so I'm afraid it's impossible to explain the use of 'the' in most sentences without knowing the speaker's point of view and the situation they are speaking in.

One way to think about this use of 'the' is the one just before the first exercise on this page: we can use 'the' to refer to a system or service. Restaurants, pubs, shops and banks are all a kind of service and so, as you suggest, the speaker could be referring to any specific place that offers the service they're looking for.

But it could be, for example, that there's only one pub in their location. In that case, 'I'm going to the pub' could refer to the fact that there's only one. It could also be that the people the speaker is talking to already know which pub she's talking about -- perhaps they are a group of friends who always go to the same pub.

As I hope you can see, it's really difficult to understand articles without considering the specific situation of an utterance.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for the explanation, Kirk. What if there are a lot of restaurant or shop in the place? Since there's lots, obviously my friend or the listener doesn't know which restaurant or shop I'm going to. It's only me who know which one I'm going to. In this case, should I remain using "the"? "I'm going to the restaurant."

Or perhaps if there is lots in the location, we can use the name of the reataurant/shop.

Hello Crokong,

Yes, you could still say 'the' in this context when you're thinking of these places -- especially 'bank', 'pub', 'school' -- as places where you can get a service, even if you're not exactly sure which one you'll go to. It's not impossible with 'restaurant' or 'shop', but it's less frequent with these. As far as I know, there's no grammatical reason for this; it's just a question of usage.

This doesn't mean it's wrong to say 'a bank' (or whatever); it just suggests that you're not thinking of them as a place to get a service as much, even though probably when you go there you will be going there for their service.

You could also use the name of the specific place or some other phrase that specifies which one you mean (e.g. 'the bank by the station').

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Jembut on Sat, 23/10/2021 - 03:14


Liverpool's Mohamed Salah says "I would love to stay at Liverpool until the last day of my football career". Shouldn't it instead be "in Liverpool"?

Hello Jembut,

'In Liverpool' would indicate the city. 'At Liverpool' refers to the club/organisation.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Petter M. Why do you use "would" in your sentence? 'In Liverpool' would indicate the city. Why not just say 'In Liverpool' indicates the city?"

Hello again Crokong,

I think we've answered quite a few questions similar to this in the past so perhaps you can try to answer your own question and we'll tell you if we agree with your interpretation.

The LearnEnglish Team

"Would" here, I think, is conditional, but there is no conditional sentence I can I'm thinking about. "Is" sounds direct. Is my understanding correct?

Submitted by Jembut on Wed, 20/10/2021 - 04:14


I will write to you this evening. In British English, it would be wrong to omit "to" (write you). Why is "would" used here? Could "would" be replaced with "is"?

Hello Kirk. I said this sentence to a native speaker "I want to write you this evening", then he replies 'it should be "write to you". In British English, it would be wrong to omit "to". My question: why is "would" used in "it would be wrong to omit "to"? Could "would" be replaced with "is", if it could, what's the difference?

Submitted by archie on Fri, 15/10/2021 - 01:14


Dear sir,
I am writing this comment to ask you about 'the'. When I search 'function of skin' on the google website, many websites say it like this, 'the function of the skin'.
1. Why do they use 'the function' ? Is the function only one in the context?
2. Why do they use 'the skin'? Does it mean all skins?
Thank you.

Hello archie,

The use of articles is very much context dependent, so you'd need to look at the sentence in it's broader context. Was the function or the skin mentioned earlier, for example? Is there a reference to define it? Simply seeing the phrase in isolation isn't enough to judge why the article is used.

The LearnEnglish Team

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Peter. I see you say "you would need..." instead of "you need...", I'm wondering why you add "would?"

The use of articles is very much context dependent, so you would need to look at the sentence in it's broader context

Hello Plokonyo,

I think you've asked questions like this before and we've answered them, so perhaps you can try to explain it yourself and we'll comment after that. That way you'll see if your understanding is correct.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Philip on Wed, 29/09/2021 - 15:28


I employed some workmen whose job included cutting trees in the garden.
I came back the next day the trees were all gone.
They said there was no difference between wanting them to cut down trees in the garden and wanting them to cut down the trees the garden.
Are they right?

Hi Philip,

It depends on the context - i.e., the rest of the conversation or discussion, including any other instructions about what the workers should do. 'Cut down THE trees in the garden' means 'all the trees'. 'Cut down trees in the garden' may mean all or some of the trees. If the intended meaning is that they should only cut down SOME of the trees, the speaker should specify which ones to cut down (and which ones not to cut down). Without that information, it could be understood as meaning 'all the trees'.

I hope that helps.


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by MPhayTp on Wed, 08/09/2021 - 18:53

Dear Team, Sarah is a daughter of Harley. Sarah is the daughter of Harley. 1)What's the difference? There is a boy whose name is John. There is the boy whose name is John. Which is the correct one and why? She's got a brighter future ahead of her. (Since I've seen many learning sites use future with 'the' when the word 'future' is considered as a noun) Should I use 'a' or 'the' 3)Is there any kind of ' Speakers' perspectives" in the uses of Articles?In other words, a situation that some may use 'a' but some may use 'the'. If there, give an example. Thanks You, I'd be clearer than ever in the uses of articles, if you answered all my questions.

Submitted by MPhayTp on Mon, 30/08/2021 - 18:59

Dear Team, Imagine I were in a situation that I meet a man whose doesn't know anything about me and I want to talk about my house. Should I say 1) I live in a small house near a beach. 2) I live in a small house near the beach. And why? It said we use the with all the things referred to by a noun. 1) A teacher must be good at teacher. Is that right and why? I don't understand " there is only one in that content" I think all the examples are known both the listener and speaker. Could you give me more examples to clarify? Thanks a million.

Hello DaniWeebKage,

Both sentences are possible but I think the most likely sentence is the second: ...near the beach. Certain geographical features tend to have the definite article before them in contexts like this, including by the lake, by the river, on the coast, near the beach, in the mountains and others.

In these examples we are not describing a particular beach (coast etc) but rather referring to the concept of beach. In other words we are telling the listener about the kind of location in which the house stands rather than describing a particular beach.


Your second sentence is not correct. The sentence should be:

A teacher must be good at teaching.

The indefinite article is used because you are talking about any teacher, not a particular teacher. You could also use a plural form without an article (Teachers must...). This would refer to all teachers.


'...there is only one in that context' means that the context limits the possible choices.

When there is a unique item in the world we use 'the': the Olympic marathon champion, the Pope, the President of France etc.

If we limit the context then we can create a unique item within that context: the dog in my garden, the lamp on my table etc.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Mon, 30/08/2021 - 03:18

Dear team, The term "Asian" is widely used for those individuals who have ethnic ties to Asia, (of which) include the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian sub-continent. What is the reason that we can not use (of which) and we should use (which) in here? I always mix up these two, could you kindly suggest a book or site that explains these sort of things. I need to study. Thank you