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

Matching_MTU3MDQ

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 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

Grouping_MTU3MDc=

The definite article with names 2

 GapFillTyping_MTU3MDg=

The definite article with names 3

GapFillTyping_MTU3MDk=

The definite article with names 4

GapFillTyping_MTU3MTA=

 

Average
Average: 4.6 (87 votes)

Submitted by Khangvo2812 on Sun, 23/06/2024 - 19:10

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Hello,

Could you help me please? Am I right in thinking that the sentence doves are belived to be a symbol of peace have the same meaning as the dove is believed to be a symbol of peace?

Hello Khangvo2812,

Yes, that's right. There are several ways to use articles to express general meaning. Here the zero article with a plural noun and the definite article with a singular noun to express this idea. In some contexts there may be a difference, but here they have the same meaning.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nora2024000000 on Tue, 28/05/2024 - 17:41

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Hello, would you please help me with below question? Thank you.  

"Help me check the terminal in this surveillance room."  " I can see the whole building on the the surveillance screen."

There are several computers and many screens (big ones and small ones) in this surveillance room.  Why both "terminal" and "screen" are in singular form?  The speakers are in the room and they can see the devices in this room.  "the terminal" and "the surveillance screen" should be changed to "the terminals" and "the surveillance screens" right ? 

Hello Nora2024000000,

The answer is very simple here. If the speaker wants to check only one terminal and one screen then they can use a singular form. If they want to check multiple screens then plural is appropriate. The speaker may be able to see every camera on one screen, for example, or they may need to look at a different screen for every camera.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nora2024000000 on Fri, 24/05/2024 - 17:01

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Hello,  would you please explain why the sentence below used "The poets", "the interpreters" and "the gods" ? Thank you. 

The poets are only the interpreters of the gods. (Philosopher Socrates)

Hi Nora2024000000,

It seems like Socrates is talking about particular groups, such as the great poets (rather than all poets), or poets in his culture, or gods in his traditions.

The sentence without definite articles ("Poets are only interpreters of gods") would be understood as a more general statement about all poets (etc.), and not specifically referring to his culture and situation.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Bwagge on Thu, 09/05/2024 - 12:35

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Dear teacher,
I have a question: The rule mentioned above is that we use the definite article THE before organisations (Ex: The United Nations). But in many circumstances, I have seen some organizations without THE (Ex: WHO). Can you explain more about this case?
Thank you! 

Hi Bwagge,

The WHO also normally uses "the", e.g. The WHO was founded in 1948. "The" is normally used when the name includes a common noun (e.g. organisation). There are exceptions, however (e.g. "UNESCO" is normally used without "the").

If the name of the organisation functions as an adjective describing another noun, then "the" might be omitted. For example: WHO guidelines suggest that ... UN Secretary‑General António Guterres announced that ...

There could be other reasons too. Feel free to share any particular examples that you would like to discuss!

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by howtosay_ on Mon, 15/04/2024 - 23:28

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Hello, dear teachers and team !

Could you please help me with these doubts of mine:

1. The dialogue is:

Is it raining in London ?

No,it is not raining. It's sunny and warm.

Could you please tell me which the correct option is:

- Are people happy? Are the people happy?

I want to say just "people" (however, I understand that intuition isn't always the key), on the other hand, I think it's not about people in general, but about people in London, which, in my opinion, justifies the usage of THE.


2. I am texting my trainer about cancelling the workout we had to have that day:

1. I am sorry, but I should skip a workout.

2. I am sorry, but I should skip the workout

Again, I think THE workout is better, because I mean that particular workout we had to have.  And if so, would it be a mistake to use A here instead?


Thank you very much indeed for your constant and precious help and I'm grateful for your answer beforehand!  

 

Hello howtosay_,

  1. In the first example I don't think it makes any difference. The context makes it plain that you are speaking about people affected by the weather so you can use just people without any ambiguity. Equally, you can use the people for the reason you give.
  2. Here the workout is needed as a workout makes the statement ambiguous. If you say I should skip a workout then your trainer might well reply OK, which workout do you want to skip?

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Gracy on Thu, 15/02/2024 - 21:18

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Hi teachers,

Please explain the use of “the” before Mr.Hunt if it is grammatically correct:

The Financial Times first reported that Treasury insiders said the Mr Hunt was looking at "further spending restraint" after 2025, if official forecasts suggest he does not have room under the government's own spending rules to fund tax cuts.

Many thanks,

G

Hi Gracy,

It's not grammatical. It seems like a typo and perhaps was intended to be "that".

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Fri, 19/01/2024 - 18:09

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Respected team,
The air is heavily polluted by exhaust fumes, and traffic jams always take place, especially during peak hours.
Is it okay to write "polluted by exhaust fumes" or "should we write "polluted from exhust fumes?
Thank you.

Hello Hosseinpour,

The best preposition here is 'by'. Although 'from' would be understood I don't think it is a standard collocation here. I would use 'by' or 'with' but not 'from'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Wed, 17/01/2024 - 16:35

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Respected team,
I’d prefer to take the bus to save time, save gasoline, and cause less pollution.
Can I delete the second save? Do I need to put a comma before and or should I delete it?
Thank you

Hi Hosseinpour,

Grammatically, it is fine to delete the second "save". However, since "save time" and "cause less pollution" both include a verb, it might be more elegant or easier to understand if you keep the verb and say "save gasoline" (because the repetition of the verb-object structure makes the sentence structure more easily predictable for readers/listeners).

About the comma, it's a question of style. Some style guides recommend using a comma before "and" in a list (e.g. "A, B, and C"). This use of a comma is called an Oxford comma. Some guides recommend leaving the comma out (e.g. "A, B and C"). 

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Rezwan79 on Tue, 02/01/2024 - 02:51

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Dear respected sir,
Why is "the" used before the word "sentence" in the excerpt below:

What Are Complements?
A complement is a word, phrase, or clause that completes the meaning of a clause or sentence. It provides additional information about another word in the sentence or is required to make the sentence grammatically complete.

is it referring to any specific sentence or in general?

I often see "the" used in this way, such as "the word" "sentence" etc in the first place even though there is no mention of the word and sentence at all.

Please remove my doubt

Hello Rezwan79,

We use the definite article when both the speaker (writer) and the listener (reader) know which item is being referred to. In other words, if both can answer the question 'Which one? then 'the' is appropriate. In your example, let's try this. Do we know which sentence is being referred to? The answer is yes: it is the sentence in which 'the' is used, not any other sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I really appreciate your explanation. Could you please rephrase it? I'm not quite sure I grasped the point. consider this example:

"Sometimes the choice between general and specific depends more on the grammar of the sentence than the meaning of the words."

Why did the writer use "the" be the words "sentence" and "words"?

I can't find out which sentence he is referring to; I can take this as a general way of saying "sentences" and "the words" as indirect anaphoric reference because sentences have words.

Hello again Rezwan79,

As I said before, we use 'the' when both the speaker and the listener know which items are being referred to. In this sentence we ask the question 'Which sentences?' and 'Which words?' and if we can answer those questions in a concrete way then 'the' is appropriate.

Sometimes the choice between general and specific depends more on the grammar of the sentence than the meaning of the words.

Which sentence? The sentence in which the words are used.

Which words? The words we are using.

 

You could rewrite the sentence using defining relative clauses as follows:

Sometimes the choice between general and specific depends more on the grammar of the sentence which the words are used in than the meaning of the words which we are using.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Khangvo2812 on Mon, 01/01/2024 - 08:49

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Hello,
Should I say English is an official language of India or the official language of India?

Hello Khangvo2812,

You would say 'the' if English were the only official language. However, India has two official languages if I remember correctly: Hindi and English. You can say 'an official language' or either of these:

English is one of the official languages of India.

English is one of the two official languages of India.

 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Plokonyo on Sun, 24/12/2023 - 10:56

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On this page says:
How long does it take on the train?
You should tell the police.

Why does the speaker use "the" in "the train" and "the police?" Which train/police is the speaker talking refering to? As a reader or listener, we don't know which.

Hello Plokonyo,

The definite article is often used with public transport:

Let's take the train / the bus / the tram.

And you can also use the indefinite article:

Why don't we take a bus / a train / a tram?

I would say the difference here is minimal.

 

You can also use the zero article:

We could go by train / bus / tram.

I don't think there is a difference in meaning but we don't use the zero article with 'take'.

 

As far as 'the police' goes, this is an example of the definite article used for institutions. When we say the police we mean the police force as an institution. We can similarly say the army, the government, the fire brigade, the navy, the health service etc.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Mangku Purel on Sun, 17/12/2023 - 10:56

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The heart, the lungs, the body, the blood, the stomach. Can you explain why "the" is used in these nouns? Which heart/body/lungs/blood/stomach is the speaker referring to? Shouldn't it instead use "a" because they're mentioned for the first time?

The heart pumps blood around the body.

Running is good for the heart.

The heart, like the stomach, needs diet

The lungs transfer oxygen into the blood.

The blood carries oxygen to all parts of the body

Hi Mangku Purel,

The page above explains: "We also use the definite article to say something about all the things referred to by a noun". The meaning of "the heart" in those sentences is a generic concept, one "heart" that encompasses and represents all hearts that exist. So, if we say "The heart pumps blood around the body", by saying "the heart" we are referring to the generic concept of "heart" that includes and refers to all hearts in all living beings everywhere. The other body parts in the sentences you mention have this same generic meaning.

It's true that we use "a" for the first mention of a noun and then "the" for following mentions is a common usage of articles. However, that is only one of many different usages of articles. It does not mean that every noun mentioned for the first time must always use "a". There are other reasons for using "the", such as those on the page above, including for the first mentions of nouns.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Thanks Jonathan. But in two these sentences, the word "blood" uses a "the" and also doesn't use a "the". Can you explain?

The heart pumps blood around the body.
The blood carries oxygen to all parts of the body.

Also, why does the word "body" uses "the?"

Hello Mangku Purel,

It is possible to use different articles for general meaning. The indefinite article, the definite article and no article are all possible but there are some differences in use. I explained the differences in a long answer to another user a few days ago. I'll link to that answer below and I think it will give you the answers to your questions.

Here is the link:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/comment/195836#comment-195836

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Crokong on Mon, 11/12/2023 - 15:29

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If a noun is mentioned the first time, it uses "a". But why use "the" in these sentences? I think "supermarket" and "shops" are used for the first time.

I'm going to go to the supermarket after work.
There is no milk. I'll buy some when I go to the shops.

Hello Crokong,

There are certain phrases which we generally use 'the' with when we are going to the place for it's normal purpose:

  • go to the supermarket / the shop / the market / the bazaar when we are going shopping
  • go to the cinema / the theatre / the ballet / the opera when we are going to watch (listen to) something

 

These are the results of convention and use rather than rules so they are not consistent. We also say 'go to a cash and carry' and 'go to a concert', for example.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Peter M. Do you think "the" in your examples refers more to the activity than the place itself? Even if there are several supermarkets, shops, markets, cinemas, bazaars, theatres, we would still use a "the?" Because we're thingking more of the activity than the place/the building itself, the listener doesn't need which. What do you think?

Hello Crokong,

Yes, I think that's right. When we say 'go to the cinema', for example, we understand that we mean to watch a film unless something about the context specifies otherwise. When we say 'go to the supermarket' we mean go shopping and so on.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by whitekrystal on Fri, 08/12/2023 - 13:07

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Hello. I often find sentences like this.

Word of the day.
Manchested United make their first change of the afternoon.
Who is the player of the match?

I don't understand the meaning of "of" in this context. Does it mean "in" here? Does "the" mean "this" here?

Word in this day.
Manchester United make their first change in this afternoon.
Who is player in this match?

Hello, sir. Why is "the" used in the sententences? Can I replace "of the" with "in this?" So it would be:

Word in this day.
Who is the player in this match?
We're underway in the second match in this evening.

Hello again whitekrystal,

The phrases in the first two sentences cannot be changed as they are common fixed expressions: word of the day / player of the match. There are other phrases similar to these such as time of your life, shock of your life, top of the morning, love of your life and so on.

The third example is also incorrect but you could say 'the second match this evening'. Here we are not dealing with a fixed expression.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks sir. How can I understand the construction of "– of the day/season/year/month?"

Word of the day.
Player of the match.

Hello whitekrystal,

When we talk about a 'word of the day', we're referring to a word that has been chosen. This one word has been chosen from a large group of words as the word we are going to focus on today (for whatever reason). Similarly, with 'player of the match', one player -- normally the player who has played the best -- is chosen from all of those who played.

I wouldn't recommend getting too focused on the exact meaning of the word 'of' here. Instead, as Peter suggested, it's best to focus on these as fixed expressions. We use this particular one when we choose to focus on one person or thing from a group for some purpose.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Dwishiren on Wed, 06/12/2023 - 18:12

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Why is there "the" in "wheel"?
I change the wheel on my car with a wheel spanner.

When there is part of things in car, house, such as tyre, fridge, etc. Do we use the definite article?

Hi Dwishiren,

Presumably, the speaker is talking about a particular wheel on his/her car - the wheel that is broken.

About parts of things, it depends. If there is only one part in that context, yes - we use "the" (e.g. the steering wheel). If there are several of those parts, we can use "a" (e.g. I changed a tyre), showing that it is one of many parts. Or, we can also use "one of the" + plural noun (e.g. I changed one of the tyres). We can also say I changed the tyre to refer to a particular one (e.g. a tyre that was damaged).

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Thanks, Jonathan. I find an example on this page that says:

They're waiting for a bus.

Why not say "the bus?"

Do you say "go to a pub/a cinema" or "go to the pub/the cinema?

Hi Dwishiren,

"The bus" is grammatical as well. There is a slight difference in meaning: "the bus" means either the general bus service or system, or the only bus in that context (e.g. only one bus passes along that particular road, or it's the bus that they always take). "A bus" means one bus, out of many other buses. In most situations, I expect that this difference will not be important and "a bus" and "the bus" effectively mean the same thing.

The same goes for "pub" and "cinema".

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Thanks, Jonathan. I get it now. But could you explain what's meant by the term "general/generic" in the use of "the?"

Hi Dwishiren,

"General" and "generic" are the opposite of "specific".

A specific meaning of I'm going to take the bus (for example) is a specific bus such as the 10:30 bus, or the bus that I always take.

A general meaning of I'm going to take the bus is any bus of this type (not only one specific bus), such as any bus that passes along this road, or any bus on this route number, or any bus in general.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Gendeng on Fri, 01/12/2023 - 04:28

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The speaker uses a "the" in "countryside" and "city". Do we know which countryside or city is the speaker talking about?

I think life in the countryside is simpler than in the city.

Hi Gendeng,

We can say "the city" and "the countryside" to refer to the generic idea of countryside/city. If I say (for example) "I love living in the city", it means that I love living in the city environment generally, without referring to any specific city. It's a similar level of generalness to other examples above such as "The heart pumps blood around the body" (which actually refers to all hearts or any heart, not just one), and "I heard it on the radio" (which refers to the radio system in general, rather than any specific radio station).

If I say "the city/countryside", it's also possible that I'm referring to one specific place, e.g. "I moved to New York last year. The city is an incredible place". In this context, "the city" refers to New York specifically. This specificness will be clear from the full context in which "the city/countryside" is said.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team