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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

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 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

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=

 

Comments

Hi Adam, I understand and really appreciate your answers. Cheers.
JJ

Hi, just want to add some questions to my previous comment.
5. In a novel, the author says "I felt frozen to the bones." Can I say "I felt frozen to bones." as how we would use the phrase, "to death", to exaggerate specific feelings, if the coldness is not really hitting my bones?

6. The same author wrote: "With bent backs, hands in pockets and guns under our arms, Karl and I strode along." which I think is much better and more concise than "With the bent backs, our hands in our pockets and the guns under our arms, Karl and I strode along." I believe the author didn't intend to imply any general meanings on those nouns. He/She only contrived to make the words less redundant. The readers can perfectly get the meaning, but according to the grammar rules, what the author wrote, considering what he/she wanted to convey, are wrong, aren't they? Or my interpretation is wrong, and in fact the author meant to give the readers different feelings with those zero articles?

Cheers,
JJ

I've been having serious problems with using/not using definite articles. It's fine when I'm receiving information; I understand the meaning perfectly. But, like what has been mentioned in this thread, since the difference between using/not using definite articles is so little, when it comes my own writing, I always struggle with the nuance, which holds my thoughts back all the time.
Take some sentences of a random news at hand(http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/02/pakistan-taliban-leader-us-...) as examples:
1. "A Pakistani government minister said the strike by an unmanned aircraft on Friday had destroyed attempts to hold peace talks with the militants which began this week."
->I would've put a "the" in front of "attempts" because I would've thought in this reported speech, the government minister would've assumed the listeners had known what the "attempts" meant when he announced it. Am I wrong? What's the nuance of them?

2. "Although Mehsud's four-year tenure as head of Pakistan's most feared militant group has been marked by horrific attacks that have killed scores of soldiers, government officials and civilians, his death looked likely to provoke fury among some politicians who believe the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) should be brought in to peace talks."
->I would've written "the head of Pakistan's most feared militant group" instead of no article before "head." Also, I would take out "the" in "the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)," which I thought it's very specific already. I googled if the original name of TTP contains "the." Big discrepancy. Even they themselves don't know whether their official name starts with "the" or not. My question is, if someday I'd like to form an institution, say "JJcat pet shop", how do I decide if I should put "the"?

3. "All political parties unanimously supported government attempts to negotiate with the TTP at a meeting in September."
-> I would've gone: "All the political parties unanimously supported the government attempts to negotiate with the TTP at a meeting in September." Again, I believe it's not to do with the perfect correctness, but the nuance that I can't tell. It hinders my writing flow and kills the joy of expressing myself in English.

4. Finally, is it awkward to say "light of the sun" rather than "the light of the sun"? I rarely hear people saying the former. However, imaging I'm living in Arctic. Now it's winter and I miss sunlight. If I say: "I miss the light of the sun," wouldn't it be confusing that what I'm missing is only the sunlight in summer in the Arctic?

Hello,

Thanks for your comment. I hope you understand that we have a lot of users on LearnEnglish and we're not a big team, so I won't be able to answer all your questions in detail. I'll do what I can, though.

1. You are not wrong and you understand the difference in meaning which adding 'the' would cause. This is an example of how articles communicate meaning and how changing one would slightly change the message of the minister. (Of course, this minister may not have originally spoken in English!)

2. Much the same applies here as in 1. Often as time goes on, articles get dropped from familiar names.

3. Your sentence would be fine. It's really a question of style, not of correctness in this case.

4. No, I don't think the sentence would be confusing in this way and you need 'the' before 'light of the sun'.

5. This is a very unusual usage; I imagine the writer used it for a stylistic reason to sound different from more usual ways of describing the cold.

6. It would be strange to put 'the' before 'bent backs', but adding or removing 'our' before hands, pockets etc. is, as you say, more about trying to make the prose concise.

Sorry I don't have time to answer in more detail; it would require a mini-essay to thoroughly respond to all your points.

Best wishes,

Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Peter.

I understand 'we should help the poor.'
But is 'We should help the poor people.' wrong? Should we write it as 'We should help poor people.'

Hello Vidyaarthi,

Both of those sentences are correct, but the meaning is slightly different:

'We should help the poor people.' - This suggests we are talking about a specific group of poor people, such as the poor people in a certain city or location.

'We should help poor people.' - This suggests we are talking about poor people in general, and commenting about the morality of helping those in financial difficulty.

'We should help the poor' is very similar in meaning to the section sentence.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

"English is the national language of the english." Is this sentence correct? Please give reasons

Hello PrashantShakun,

The sentence is correct, apart from the capital letter missing from the last word ('...the English').

We can use the definite article with plural nouns describing nationalities when we want to refer to the country or nationality as a whole. For example:

'President Obama contacted the British last night.' [He contacted the British state/government]
'The Irish are good singers.' [The Irish people]

In your sentence 'the English' refers to the whole of the English people and it is correct.

Best wishes,

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi! I have a question. I just took a practice IELTS listening test. The section 1 was gap filling questions. "Complete the notes below". There are several gaps on the note and one of them was "Nearest bus stop : next to ..." I wrote down "the library" but the answer was "library". Is my answer wrong? I'm sure the speaker said "the library" because I checked the transcript. Because this is just a note, you don't need to write "the"? I'm a little confused.

Thanks!

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