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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


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 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


The definite article with names 2


The definite article with names 3


The definite article with names 4




Dear Peter M,
Thank you for the help and the time.

Hello dear team,
Without the "greenhouse effect", Earth (would be) too cold to support most forms of life.
Why can't we use (will be) instead of (would be)?
Thank you

Hi Hosseinpour,

Will indicates a realistic situation, i.e., something that (in the speaker's view) is possible in real life, and would indicates a hypothetical or imaginary situation, i.e., something that (in the speaker's view) is impossible, unlikely or unrealistic.

The greenhouse effect is a natural process of the Earth and its atmosphere, so we don't have a reason to think that it will end. That's why would be is a better answer in your sentence - it reflects that fact that this situation is unlikely, impossible or unrealistic.

Will be is grammatically correct too, but if the speaker says will be, it indicates that this situation is possible, so it might slightly confuse the listener (because if the listener knows that the greenhouse effect is a natural process, he/she knows that it is impossible or unlikely to end.)

Thanks for your question and I hope my answer helps :) You can find more examples and explanation on this page about will and would and if you have more questions about this topic, please post them on that page. Thanks :)


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Jonathan R,
Thank you for the help and time.

Respected team,
Daycare is a service(in which) children or dependent adults are cared for while the person who normally cares for them can not do so.
Why can't we use (that) instead of (in which)?
Thank you

Hi Hosseinpour,

Good question! Let me clarify some terminology first. ‘That’ and ‘which’ are relative pronouns, and it’s important to understand that relative pronouns substitute for a previous noun. For example, in the sentence Daycare is a service that … , the relative pronoun ‘that’ substitutes for ‘a service’. The relative pronoun introduces a relative clause describing ‘a service’.


You should use ‘that’ and ‘which’ when the relative pronoun is the subject or object in the relative clause. For example, we use ‘that’ here:

  • Daycare is a service that the government provides. (‘that’ = object of the verb ‘provides’, i.e. The government provides the service.)
  • Daycare is a service that helps many people. (‘that’ = subject of the verb ‘helps’, i.e. The service helps many people.)


In your example (which I’ll slightly simplify), I’ll underline the relative clause:

  • Daycare is a service in which children are cared for.

The verb phrase is ‘are cared for’. The subject is ‘children’ (not ‘service’). It doesn’t have an object (it doesn’t make sense to say ‘children are cared for service’). So, that’s why we can’t say ‘Daycare is a service that …’ in this sentence – because ‘that’ (referring to ‘a service’) isn’t the subject or object in the relative clause. This might be clearer if we rephrase the sentence:

  • Children are cared for in the daycare service.
  • In the daycare service, children are cared for.

The relationship between ‘children are cared for’ and ‘a service’ is that one happens in the other – i.e., children are cared for in the daycare service. That’s why we need ‘in which’. Does that make sense?


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Jonathan R,
Thank you sir for the time and help.

Respected team,
At first the lie he had told did not bother the boy, but after a few days, it became a great burden to him. Now, he wishes he (COULD HAVE GONE ) back and undone what he had done.
Aren't we supposed to use past perfect in the parentheses? What is the reason that this is a true answer?
Thank you

Hello Hosseinpour,

You could use a past perfect form here: he wishes he had gone, but the perfect modal verb is also correct.


Both forms (wishes he had gone and wishes he could have gone) describes unreal past situations, but the first describes an act while the second describes a possibility or opportunity:

wishes he had gone - he didn't go

wishes he could have gone - he didn't have the opportunity/was not able to go



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter,
Thanks for the help and time.