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=

 

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Submitted by Ahmed Hassan on Fri, 19/11/2021 - 18:07

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Hello Teachers
I find some words written with and without a definite article such as "water" and "air". is there any difference?

Hello Ahmed Hassan,

We use 'the' when we are talking about something identified and specific. For example:

"There is water on the floor. What happened?"
"I spilt it when I was making some tea. Don't worry - I'll mop up the water."

The speaker says 'the water' in the second sentence because he or she knows which water they are talking about - it has already been identified.

Obviously, the use of 'the' depends on the context and how much information is shared between the speakers.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again, Teacher.
I mean when we talk about the words "water" and "air" in general, do we say "in water / in air" or "in the water/ in the air", for example, "How long can you hold your breath in the water?" and "How long can you fly a kite in the air ?".

Hello again Ahmed Hassan,

The phrases here would be a little different. We would most often say 'under water' and 'in the sky':

> How long can you hold your breath under water?
> How long can you fly a kite in the sky?

There are other possibilities but I think these are the most frequently used. 'Water' here is general rather than specific. 'The sky' is used because in this context we are thinking of the sky as a single thing which covers the whole world.

Articles are a rule-based grammatical system but there are also a lot of collocations and fixed expressions involved, so not every example can be explained with a clear grammatical rule.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by caprio_boy on Tue, 09/11/2021 - 18:41

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Kindly explain the following article:
"The" Wright brothers,
Wright brothers is a proper noun yet we write "the" infornt of it. Does it needed?

Hello caprio_boy,

Yes, that is correct. In this case, it's as if we're speaking about the Wright family.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Crokong on Mon, 01/11/2021 - 03:51

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the words like "restaurant, pub, shop, bank" when they is used with "the", I think they don't describe an specific example, but rather refer to an action although the listener doesn't know which restaurant/bank/shop/ I'm going to. For example, there is more than one of them, and I say to my friend that I'm going to the pub/bank/shop, etc, clearly he/she doesn't know which pub/bank/shop/restaurant I'm going to.

What do you think about this point, sir?

Hello Crokong,

Articles are highly context-dependent, so I'm afraid it's impossible to explain the use of 'the' in most sentences without knowing the speaker's point of view and the situation they are speaking in.

One way to think about this use of 'the' is the one just before the first exercise on this page: we can use 'the' to refer to a system or service. Restaurants, pubs, shops and banks are all a kind of service and so, as you suggest, the speaker could be referring to any specific place that offers the service they're looking for.

But it could be, for example, that there's only one pub in their location. In that case, 'I'm going to the pub' could refer to the fact that there's only one. It could also be that the people the speaker is talking to already know which pub she's talking about -- perhaps they are a group of friends who always go to the same pub.

As I hope you can see, it's really difficult to understand articles without considering the specific situation of an utterance.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for the explanation, Kirk. What if there are a lot of restaurant or shop in the place? Since there's lots, obviously my friend or the listener doesn't know which restaurant or shop I'm going to. It's only me who know which one I'm going to. In this case, should I remain using "the"? "I'm going to the restaurant."

Or perhaps if there is lots in the location, we can use the name of the reataurant/shop.

Hello Crokong,

Yes, you could still say 'the' in this context when you're thinking of these places -- especially 'bank', 'pub', 'school' -- as places where you can get a service, even if you're not exactly sure which one you'll go to. It's not impossible with 'restaurant' or 'shop', but it's less frequent with these. As far as I know, there's no grammatical reason for this; it's just a question of usage.

This doesn't mean it's wrong to say 'a bank' (or whatever); it just suggests that you're not thinking of them as a place to get a service as much, even though probably when you go there you will be going there for their service.

You could also use the name of the specific place or some other phrase that specifies which one you mean (e.g. 'the bank by the station').

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Jembut on Sat, 23/10/2021 - 03:14

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Liverpool's Mohamed Salah says "I would love to stay at Liverpool until the last day of my football career". Shouldn't it instead be "in Liverpool"?

Hello Jembut,

'In Liverpool' would indicate the city. 'At Liverpool' refers to the club/organisation.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Petter M. Why do you use "would" in your sentence? 'In Liverpool' would indicate the city. Why not just say 'In Liverpool' indicates the city?"

Hello again Crokong,

I think we've answered quite a few questions similar to this in the past so perhaps you can try to answer your own question and we'll tell you if we agree with your interpretation.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

"Would" here, I think, is conditional, but there is no conditional sentence I can I'm thinking about. "Is" sounds direct. Is my understanding correct?

Submitted by Jembut on Wed, 20/10/2021 - 04:14

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I will write to you this evening. In British English, it would be wrong to omit "to" (write you). Why is "would" used here? Could "would" be replaced with "is"?

Hello Kirk. I said this sentence to a native speaker "I want to write you this evening", then he replies 'it should be "write to you". In British English, it would be wrong to omit "to". My question: why is "would" used in "it would be wrong to omit "to"? Could "would" be replaced with "is", if it could, what's the difference?

Submitted by archie on Fri, 15/10/2021 - 01:14

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Dear sir,
I am writing this comment to ask you about 'the'. When I search 'function of skin' on the google website, many websites say it like this, 'the function of the skin'.
1. Why do they use 'the function' ? Is the function only one in the context?
2. Why do they use 'the skin'? Does it mean all skins?
Thank you.

Hello archie,

The use of articles is very much context dependent, so you'd need to look at the sentence in it's broader context. Was the function or the skin mentioned earlier, for example? Is there a reference to define it? Simply seeing the phrase in isolation isn't enough to judge why the article is used.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Philip on Wed, 29/09/2021 - 15:28

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I employed some workmen whose job included cutting trees in the garden.
I came back the next day the trees were all gone.
They said there was no difference between wanting them to cut down trees in the garden and wanting them to cut down the trees the garden.
Are they right?

Hi Philip,

It depends on the context - i.e., the rest of the conversation or discussion, including any other instructions about what the workers should do. 'Cut down THE trees in the garden' means 'all the trees'. 'Cut down trees in the garden' may mean all or some of the trees. If the intended meaning is that they should only cut down SOME of the trees, the speaker should specify which ones to cut down (and which ones not to cut down). Without that information, it could be understood as meaning 'all the trees'.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by DaniWeebKage on Wed, 08/09/2021 - 18:53

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Dear Team, Sarah is a daughter of Harley. Sarah is the daughter of Harley. 1)What's the difference? There is a boy whose name is John. There is the boy whose name is John. Which is the correct one and why? She's got a brighter future ahead of her. (Since I've seen many learning sites use future with 'the' when the word 'future' is considered as a noun) Should I use 'a' or 'the' 3)Is there any kind of ' Speakers' perspectives" in the uses of Articles?In other words, a situation that some may use 'a' but some may use 'the'. If there, give an example. Thanks You, I'd be clearer than ever in the uses of articles, if you answered all my questions.

Submitted by DaniWeebKage on Mon, 30/08/2021 - 18:59

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Dear Team, Imagine I were in a situation that I meet a man whose doesn't know anything about me and I want to talk about my house. Should I say 1) I live in a small house near a beach. 2) I live in a small house near the beach. And why? It said we use the with all the things referred to by a noun. 1) A teacher must be good at teacher. Is that right and why? I don't understand " there is only one in that content" I think all the examples are known both the listener and speaker. Could you give me more examples to clarify? Thanks a million.

Hello DaniWeebKage,

Both sentences are possible but I think the most likely sentence is the second: ...near the beach. Certain geographical features tend to have the definite article before them in contexts like this, including by the lake, by the river, on the coast, near the beach, in the mountains and others.

In these examples we are not describing a particular beach (coast etc) but rather referring to the concept of beach. In other words we are telling the listener about the kind of location in which the house stands rather than describing a particular beach.

 

Your second sentence is not correct. The sentence should be:

A teacher must be good at teaching.

The indefinite article is used because you are talking about any teacher, not a particular teacher. You could also use a plural form without an article (Teachers must...). This would refer to all teachers.

 

'...there is only one in that context' means that the context limits the possible choices.

When there is a unique item in the world we use 'the': the Olympic marathon champion, the Pope, the President of France etc.

If we limit the context then we can create a unique item within that context: the dog in my garden, the lamp on my table etc.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Mon, 30/08/2021 - 03:18

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Dear team, The term "Asian" is widely used for those individuals who have ethnic ties to Asia, (of which) include the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian sub-continent. What is the reason that we can not use (of which) and we should use (which) in here? I always mix up these two, could you kindly suggest a book or site that explains these sort of things. I need to study. Thank you

Submitted by Jonathan R on Mon, 30/08/2021 - 10:30

In reply to by Hosseinpour

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Hi Hosseinpour,

It's because which (substituting for Asia) is the subject of the relative clause, i.e.:

  • Asia includes the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian sub-continent.

Use of which (or another preposition + which) if Asia is neither the subject nor the object of the relative clause. In other words, to use of which, the relative clause must specify a new subject (i.e., not Asia; in the example below, it is 'we'):

  • The term "Asian" is widely used for those individuals who have ethnic ties to Asia, of which we can include the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian sub-continent. (subject = we; object = the Far East ... sub-continent).

You might find this page from the Cambridge Dictionary useful. See especially the 'which + prepositions' section, and other '+ prepositions' sections.

It would also be great if you can try to post questions on relevant pages. This question would be perfect for our Non-defining relative clauses page, for example. Thanks :)

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

Submitted by Jembut on Thu, 26/08/2021 - 15:18

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Sir, does "there" here means "that"? There's the girl who works with my sister.

Hello Jembut,

'There' in this sentence is used to draw another person's attention to something that they may not have noticed. It's difference from 'that' or 'this', which refer to things already seen or noticed.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Thu, 26/08/2021 - 06:57

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Respected team, Were America and Europe to surprise sceptics and agree a sort of common market across the Atlantic. 1. past to be+ subject+ to+ verb What is the meaning of the above-mentioned sentence? (Were America and Europe to surprise) does this mean Are going to? or Were going to? Could you kindly explain when and how we can use this structure? Thank you

Hello Hosseinpour,

Without knowing the context in which this appears it is very hard to say. It looks like it may be part of an incomplete hypothetical construction as you can use inversion in place of if in sentences like this:

If America and Europe were to surprise sceptics and agree a sort of common market across the Atlantic, then...

Were America and Europe to surprise sceptics and agree a sort of common market across the Atlantic, then...

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Sun, 22/08/2021 - 21:18

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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 :)

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Tue, 17/08/2021 - 12:19

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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?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Tue, 10/08/2021 - 08:41

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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

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sokhom on Wed, 04/08/2021 - 17:15

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Hello, Sir + E.g. Scientists have recently discovered a new species of plant. I wondered why 'plant' has no articles. + Could you please tell me which one is correct: 1. I live Takeo Province. 2. I live in the Takeo province. 3. I live in Takeo province. 4. I live in a Takeo province. Your explanation is a big help for me. Best Wishes!

Hello Sokhom,

Of those four options, 3 is the correct one.

As for the other sentence, 'plant' is referring plants in general, not to a specific one or one already mentioned. 'a new species' refers to one particular species that is just now being mentioned, but 'plant' does not.

Hope that helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

I really appreciate it! I just know that can see your reply only when I logged in. Could I write the sentence as below: - Scientists have recently discovered a new species of a plant. As I have learned, either 'a/an/the' or 'inflected form (-s)' is used when using a count noun. So, I think 'plant' should be preceded by 'a'. Please help me! Thank you for your precious time. Best Wishes!

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Sun, 01/08/2021 - 18:53

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Hello dear team, When modern coastal fish-farming began 30 years ago, no one was doing things right,------- for the environment --------- the industry's long-term sustainability. In the blank space, can I use (whether/or)? If not why? Thank you

Hi Hosseinpour,

Yes! Whether/or works fine.

There is another option - to use either/or. But there's a slight difference in meaning.

  • either A or B - suggests that there are only two possibilities in total (e.g., The medicine may produce side effects, either positive or negative.)
  • whether A or B - means something like 'no matter', and doesn't suggest a limited number of possibilities.

I hope that helps!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team