Definite Article

The definite article in English language is 'the'. It is used before a noun to show that the noun is known to the reader. Learn about this useful article!

Intermediate
"Definite Article" in English Grammar

What Is a Definite Article?

The definite article is used before a noun to show that the identity of the noun is known to the reader.

English Definite Article

The only definite article and the most frequent word in English is 'the.' Generally, the definite article precedes a noun or noun phrase to make it definite.

He opened the book.

When we say 'the book,' we are referring to a particular thing we assume you know.

The definite article specifies a noun by referring to a particular member of a group, class or something that was already mentioned by the speaker.

How the Definite Article Is Added to a Noun

In the English language, articles (definite and indefinite) always come before a noun. Take a look at this example:

He opened the book.

If you have a noun phrase instead of a noun, the article comes before the whole phrase, not the noun. Look at these examples:

He opened the white book.

Here 'white book' is a noun phrase (made from an adjective and a noun), and article came before it.

He opened the very first white book.

Here 'very first white book' is a noun phrase (made from an adverb, two adjectives and a noun), and article came before it.

When to Use Definite Articles

It is very important to know when and in which case you should use articles with nouns. In order to explain them simply, we divide nouns into two categories:

  • Common nouns
  • Proper nouns

Using Definite Article with Common Nouns

To Distinguish Something Mentioned Before

We can use a definite article to distinguish something that was mentioned before in a conversation or text. Look at these examples:

A man broke into our house. The man ran away when he saw our dog.

By using 'the' in the second sentence, we show that this is the same man that was mentioned before.

A man broke into our house. A man ran away when he saw our dog.

By using the indefinite article in the second sentence we indicate that the second sentence is about a different man.

A young man got run over by a truck. The man died and the police searched everywhere for the truck.

By using a definite pronoun in the second sentence, we show that we are talking about the same man (a young man).

To Indicate Something Unique

We use 'the' when we wish to talk about a unique person or thing that has no counterpart in a situation. Let's see how it works.

The moon is a sight to see.

'The' precedes the noun 'moon' since there is only one moon orbiting the earth (or there is only one moon in the sky.)

How many moons does Jupiter have?

In this example we are not talking about the moon orbiting earth but, the concept of moon as a planet orbiting another planet so we do not refer to it as 'the moon'.

The sun is shining.

The word 'sun gets 'the' because there is only one sun in the solar system (or we can see only one sun in the sky.)

The president of the United States has a lot of power.

Since a country can have only one president at a time (a four-year period), we put 'the' before the noun 'president.'

To Indicate Something Unique in a Context

We explained before that we use 'the' to refer to something that is unique. This use is almost the same, except here 'the' shows that something is unique in a specific context or location. Take a look at the following examples:

I bought an apartment next to the church.

Here 'the' precedes the word 'church' because the speaker thinks you know which church is being discussed. Probably because there is only one church in the district or town.

John! Look at the woman over there.

Here the definite article precedes the word 'woman' because the speaker wants John to take a look at the woman they are pointing at.

Mommy, where is the puppy?

In this sentence, the speaker puts the definite article before the noun 'puppy' because there is only one family dog or the speaker has only one dog.

Before Superlatives in Noun Phrases

We use the definite article before a superlative adjective preceding a noun to indicate that something has unique features or is one of a kind. Look at the following examples:

It is the oldest city in the world.

Here 'the' precedes the superlative 'oldest' to indicate that there is no city older than the city being discussed here.

She is the most beautiful girl in the class.

In this one, 'the' is placed before the superlative 'most beautiful' to indicate that no one is prettier than her in the class.

With Relative Clauses and Prepositional Phrases

We can use 'the' with different clauses or phrases by which we specify or describe a particular person or thing, or give information about that person or thing.

The Woman who wrote this letter is my Mother.

Here 'the' precedes a noun that is being identified by a relative clause. In other words, the relative clause is giving more information about 'the woman.'

She is the teacher who failed me in math.

This sentence is similar to the previous one. The definite article is placed before a noun that is about to be identified or specified by a relative clause that follows it.

I live in the house next to George's coffee shop.

In this one, the prepositional phrase 'next to George's coffee shop' is giving information about the house. Therefore, 'the' precedes the noun 'house.'

Would you give me the glass on the table?

Here 'on the table' is a prepositional phrase which is giving information about the 'glass.'

using the definite article 'the' in a sentence

Before Nouns as Adjectives

We use the definite article with some adjectives to refer to a group of people sharing a particular characteristic. This is especially important in situations where nationalities or ethnic groups, and their languages might be confused.

I love the French.

Here 'the French' refers to all 'French people.'

The poor need our help.

In this sentence, 'the poor' means 'poor people.'

Definite Articles with Adjectives

When you use the definite article with some adjectives to refer to a group of people, you must use them as a collective noun.

The French are famous for their flavorful sauces and soups.

To Refer to a Whole Group

When we wish to refer to a specific class among other classes or all the things in a group or all the members of a group, we can use the definite article with a singular noun.

The heart is a vital organ in the body.

Although here 'the' precedes a singular noun, this sentence implies that hearts are vital organs in bodies. 'The heart' refers to all hearts that exist in all bodies.

The lion is a dangerous animal.

Although 'the lion' is singular, it refers to all lions. This sentence means, lions are dangerous animals.

Before Musical Instruments

When we are talking about a type of musical instrument, we put the definite article before the name of the instrument.

He plays the guitar very well.

I learned to play the piano when I was really young.

Here it does not refer to one specific instrument but a type of instrument.

Before Systems or Services

When we wish to talk about a specific system or service such the police, television, radio, and train we use the definite article. Let's see some examples:

She takes the bus to school every morning.

In this sentence 'the bus' does not refer to one specific bus but to 'bus' as a means of transportation.

I listen to the radio while driving.

Here 'the' precedes 'radio' to refer to the whole system, and not just to a particular station.

Before Ordinal Numbers

We can also use the definite article with an ordinal number to refer to the particular instance when something occurs or to the number of times something happens. Here are some examples:

This is the fourth time I have called her today.

In this sentence, 'the' is placed before 'fourth' to specify how many times the action of calling was done by the speaker.

This is the third time I am asking her for a favor.

Here the definite article precedes the ordinal number 'third' to indicate how many times the action of asking for a favor was done by the speaker.

Before Decades

We can use the definite article when we want to refer to a particular decade of a century. Let's see some examples:

She was born in the nineties.

This sentence means that the speaker was born in a particular year in the nineties (the years from ninety to ninety-nine).

This book was written in the 1720's.

This one means that the particular book was written in the third decade of the eighteenth century.

Using Definite Article with Proper Nouns

Generally, we cannot use the definite article with most proper nouns. But there are some exceptions. Let's go through them:

With Names of Seas, Oceans, Mountains, etc.

We use the definite article with the names of oceans, seas, rivers, mountain ranges, canals, groups of islands, and geographical areas. Here are some examples:

The Canaries (or the Canary Islands) are situated in the Atlantic Ocean.

Since the Canaries is the name of a group of islands and the Atlantic Ocean is the name of an ocean, 'the' precedes both of them.

I've never seen the Arctic.

The Arctic is the name of a geographical region, so 'the' is placed before it.

The Rocky Mountains are located in the west part of America and are really hard to climb.

Here the definite article is placed before a proper noun that refers to a particular mountain range.

With Names of Some Countries

We also use 'the' with countries that have plural names or with countries that have 'states', 'republic', or 'kingdom' in their names. Let's see some examples:

She has never been to the Netherlands.

As you can see, 'the' precedes 'Netherlands' because it is the name of a country and it is plural.

He always wanted to visit the United States.

In this sentence, 'the' is placed before 'United States' because it is a proper noun and there is 'states' in it.

With Names of Newspapers and Publications

We put the definite article before newspaper names.

I read the Guardian.

I know someone who works for the New York Times.

With Name of Certain Buildings and Places

We also use the definite article with the names of famous buildings, museums, monuments, or works of art. See the following examples:

We went to Paris to see the Eifel Tower.

Who painted the Mona Lisa?

We use 'the' with the names of hotels and restaurants. Here are some examples.

I always stay at the Continental Hotel.

The Gramercy is my favorite restaurant.

Warning

We cannot use the definite article with hotels or restaurants named after people.

We stayed at Main's Hotel.

Jimmy's Restaurant is downtown.

With Family Names

We can use the definite article with the names of families. Look at the following examples:

The Morrisons live next door.

We are having lunch with the Browns today.

Review

A definite article is used to talk about specific items. or to refer to something which was mentioned earlier. The definite article in English is the term 'the'. The has many functions in English. Some are:

1. To distinguish something mentioned before 5. With relative clauses and prepositional phrases 9. Before systems or services 13. With names of some countries
2. To indicate something unique 6. Before nouns as adjectives 10. Before ordinal numbers 14. With names of newspapers and publications
3. To indicate something unique in a context or location 7. To refer to a whole group 11. Before decades 15. With name of certain buildings and places
4. Before superlatives in noun phrases 8. Before musical instruments 12. With names of seas, oceans, mountains, etc. 16. With family names

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