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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

Hi karentrewinnard,

We usually leave the out of the abbreviation. For example, we say The BBC and The UN.

I think this is just a convention, not a rule. So, there might be some abbreviations which do abbreviate the - but I can't think of any examples at the moment.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, we don't use article "the" with the name of bridges but there are some that are used with "the". Do we use "the" with Golden Gate bridge?

Hello Avianna,

Yes, we usually say the Golden Gate Bridge.

Most bridges are treated as pI don't think there is a rule here. You just need to learn which bridges have no article and which take the definite article.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Regarding the "French Guiana" question, is it necessarily wrong to say "the French Guiana"? Since you might be using the article to specify which of the Guianas.

Hello dvdmrn,

I've never heard it described as anything other than French Guiana (no article), so I think adding 'the' would not sound natural.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi.
I have a question regarding the pronunciation of ‘the’ as ‘thee’ before a noun beginning with a vowel or having a vowel sound. Such as ‘thee edition’ as opposed to ‘the edition’. Is this pronunciation of ‘the’ as ‘thee’ before a vowel, compulsory or is it a suggestion?
I couldn’t find any official reference suggesting that this pronunciation is in fact mandatory. Sure, it’s widely used and accepted as correct, but is it grammatically incorrect to say ‘the old man’ instead of ‘thee old man’. ?
Would that be wrong English if I chose to say ‘the’ instead of ‘thee’ in that scenario ?

Hi clintoncerejo,

No, it wouldn't be grammatically wrong. But it might (or might not) be considered a pronunciation error. Using the longer vowel sound (e.g. 'thee edition') is a feature of standard pronunciation, at least in British English, so it's normal and expected from that point of view. 

But at the same time, many speakers (including myself) don't always follow the standard, and there is a lot of variation in pronunciation. So, I'm afraid I don't have a simple answer.

Unless you need to take a pronunciation test, I would say that if your words can be clearly understood by a listener, you can say either 'the' or 'thee'.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

(Thank you, sir, for your such advanced reply.)
Then, Can I conclude that 'the' in front of an uncountable noun is optional even when the object it refers is unique?

If the uncountable noun is abstract (not concrete), and the intended meaning is general (not specific), then the is often omitted.

  • We hope that delivery next month will not cause you serious inconvenience.

Here, I understand delivery as an abstract and general thing, not as a specific instance of delivery (even though the context is about a specific customer order). If we want to make it more specific, we could say:

  • We hope that the delivery of this order next month will not cause you serious inconvenience.

This is much more clearly about a specific delivery, not delivery in general, so the is used. But I do think the first version would be the more common way to say it.

Two more examples:

  • Friendship is valuable.
  • The friendship we have is valuable.

So, it's not really optional, but dependent on the situation. It's hard to give rules about this, since much depends on what level of specificity is expected in the particular situation. A good way to build up a sense for this is by noting more examples with and without the that you find, as you've done here.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

"We are sorry your order cannot be sent immediately. But we hope that [delivery] at the beginning of next month will not cause you serious inconvenience."

About the 'delivery', does this sentence implies that this company will make more than 'one' delivery at the beginning of next month, because the article 'the' isn't used in front of the 'delivery'?

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