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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 Kirk
Thanks.
But I still have a lingering doubt.
When there are many children and there is only one boy amongst them, we may simply use ' the boy '.When there are more boys, we may need an additional identifier and therefore say ' the boy in blue shirt' which itself could mean that the speaker is referring to the only boy in blue shirt. But if there are more boys in blue shirts, perhaps the speaker may use some other identifier to refer to the boy he is speaking about.
Would it therefore be right to understand that 'the' is used generally for a person or thing which is unique, whereas it is not necessary to use the definite article more than once in a noun phrase formed with a common noun referring to colour ?
I can think of another example;
would it be right to say " the man from Netherlands " rather than " the man from  the Netherlands " ?
Is it possible that because of the preposition preceding the article, the definite article is unnecessary ?
Thanks and Regards

Hi veeraraghavan,

The definite article is used for unique things, true, but this is rather a subset of a broader rule: that the definite article is used with things that are identified and recognised by both the speaker and listener (writer and reader).  This could be because they are unique, because they are shared (for example, because both the speaker and listener can see the object) or because they have been previously mentioned.

The correct sentence would be 'the man from the Netherlands'.  The preposition does not change the requirement for the definite article in any way.  Similarly, in your earlier example we would not say 'the boy in blue shirt' but rather 'the boy in the blue shirt'.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi
I have a confusion. Please help me.
Can we say that we use the article 'the' either to refer to a subject which is known to the speaker and listener or to bring a specific subject to the attention of the listener?
In the example " The boy in the blue shirt", why is it necessary to use 'the' before blue? Will it be Okay to say " The boy in blue shirt" because 'blue shirt' itself is enough to identify the boy the speaker is referring to?
Is there a rule that the noun preceded by an adjective should be used with 'the'?
Or can we say the phrase ' the blue shirt ' gives an additional information that the boy the speaker referring to is the only boy wearing  blue shirt?
Please help me.

Hi veeraraghavan,

The most general useful rule is what is explained at the top of this page: the is used when we believe the hearer/reader knows what we are talking about.

At the top of the chart in which "the boy in the blue shirt" appears it explains that the can be used when there is only one of something in a place. So in this example, the is used to indicate that there is only one boy wearing a blue shirt in that place. In other contexts, the might not be necessary in a similar sentence - it really depends on the context.

There is no rule that the must be used with a noun preceded by an adjective.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, I have a question regarding usage of the definite article before people's names. I know that, according to the English grammar rules, it can not be used there, but do any exceptions exist? I mean, if for example, I put an adjective before some famous person's name, shouldn't I use the definite article before that adjective. It seems to me that I learnt something like that at university years ago but now I can hardly remember it. Subconsciously I always intend to use "the" in such cases, but I am full of doubts. Could you please dispel them? Thanks. 

Hello Kat-G,

You are correct that, usually, we do not use the definite article before people's names.  However, there are exceptions, as you say, when there is an adjective before the name. For example:

I met Lady Thatcher in 2002.

but

I met the famous Lady Thatcher in 2002.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 i do not understand repeating word brown's;brown's  hotel.morel's,morel's restaurant.thank
 

Hi yogesh mani tripathi,

Brown's and Brown's Hotel are simply two different ways of referring to the same hotel. The full name is Brown's Hotel, but when speaking to others who are familiar with a place with a possessive in its name, we often just say the possessive part, e.g. Brown's, because it's a bit shorter. The same is true of Morel's and any other establishment with a similar name.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

I have problem in using definite article before certain nouns,to be precise with names of newspapers.We say The Times,The Gardian,but we say Politika and Borba? Or Cosmopolitan?I really need help.

Hi anci17,

The rule about using "the" with the names of newspapers applies to English-language newspapers; generally, newspapers in other languages are referred to as they are in the languages they are published in.

Cosmopolitan is a magazine, not a newspaper - that is why "the" is not used with it.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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