The Uses of “The”

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has a question about the use of the definite article the:

I have been searching without success for a good and thorough explanation of how and when to use “the.” I have an Iranian friend, and his English is excellent, save for his use of “the.” Neither he nor I have been able to find anything that clearly and comprehensively explains all of the different uses.

Any suggestions?

I doubt any source can be found that explains “all of the different uses of the clearly and comprehensively.”

One researcher has called the English article system a psychomechanism, “a system through which native speakers use articles correctly but unconsciously.”

The misuse of the does not impede communication, but it is a clue that an email purporting to be from an English-speaking friend supposedly stranded in a foreign country is a scam.

The only suggestion I can offer about the use of the is that the secret lies in the concepts of definiteness and countability.

Definiteness
A noun has “definiteness” when there is something unique or specific about it.
Here are some examples:

The sun was worshipped by the ancient Aztecs. (In this context, sun is uncountable)

The driver found an injured cat. He took the cat to an animal clinic. (First it’s “a cat,” one among many. Once mentioned, it’s “the cat,” the specific cat that was picked up by the motorist.)

She’s waiting for the bus. (In this context, “the bus” is a service.) Other examples: We took the train to Chicago. I prefer the telephone to email.

The Salvation Army feeds the hungry and ministers to the poor. (The is used with adjectives that are used as nouns to denote a group.)

Countability
Nouns are said to be countable or uncountable. Other terms are count nouns and noncount nouns.

Because countable nouns can be counted, they have a singular and a plural form: one cat, two cats.

The difficulty with this category is that some nouns can be both countable and uncountable, depending on context. Compare:

Major crops are cotton and rice.
Fido takes the cotton out of all his toys.
You prepare the salad and I’ll cook the rice.

I don’t much care for coffee.
They ordered three coffees and a tea.
Here, you take the coffee. I don’t want it.

His brother is still looking for work.
She quit her job because she didn’t like the work.

ESL speakers struggling with the uses of the will benefit from the use of a dictionary designed for them. Regular dictionaries don’t always categorize nouns as to count and noncount, but beginners’ dictionaries do.

Nouns that are usually noncount can be learned according to certain categories. For example:

Agricultural crops: coffee, rice, sugar, etc.
Natural phenomena: rain, snow, gravity, etc.
Liquids: water, wine, blood, etc.
Abstractions: honesty, courage, intelligence, etc.

The British Council site offers a thorough discussion of the uses of the.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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8 Responses to “The Uses of “The””

  • Bill

    One change gradually happening with the use of these words is when people talk about doctors and hospitals. While many—including major news organizations—still use “the” instead of “a/an,” as if they live in a village with just one medical facility employing one doctor, many others are starting to use the indefinite article.

  • Wes

    There are also differences in use of “the” between British and US speakers – In Britain, you “go to hospital” in the US you “go to the hospital.” I think there are several other words that fall into this same usage (weekend, perhaps?)

  • venqax

    Weekend? Do British people say they are going away for weekend? I’ve heard of some people doing things “at” the weekend, rather than on or over the weekend like Americans do, but still with the the.

  • thebluebird11

    @Maeve: I never really thought about “the” too much, and although I hear many ESL speakers every day, very few seem to have a problem with that word; in fact, the biggest problem I hear is their pronunciation of the letter combination “th”! Nevertheless, the question was asked (by your reader), and although I don’t know if there was more to the question or not, but if not, it would have been helpful, I think, for the reader to provide more information, like specific instances where his Iranian friend is having a problem, or exactly what his friend’s problem is with that word. Is he using it too often, or in the wrong place (e.g. instead of the indefinite article), is he leaving it out altogether? I’m hoping that your answer addressed his problem, but I myself am not clear what the actual problem is.

  • Nicholas Rose

    I would very much appreciate a fuller link to the relevant British Council Web page, please, as a search on the website for any information on the use of “the” has so far proved fruitless.

  • Maeve

    Nicholas Rose,
    Here’s a link: http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/determiners-and-quantifiers/definite-article

  • Alex

    Long-time reader, first-time poster. English is my second language and I have struggled with use of “the” for many years. It got to the point I became very self-conscious about it. I remember asking my American friends to explain to me when to use “the” but never getting a good answer. The statement about psychomechanism made me laugh a little.
    I think the problem for many of us is the lack of articles in our native languages. I feel your friends pain.

  • Chris Pink

    I agree with the writer that you won’t find a source that explains all of the different uses of “the” clearly and comprehensively. However, I have to disagree that the use of “the” definite article has anything to do with countability.

    For example, one can say:
    the advice (non-count); the suggestion (count)
    the vocabulary (non-count); the idiom (count)

    I have always used this general statement to explain the concept to my students: Basically, we use “the” when your reader or listener will understand WHICH thing or things you are referring to.

    This could be because:
    a) the noun was previously mentioned
    b) the noun is further identified with an adjective or adjective clause (“the black-haired boy” or “the person who…” or “the advice that…”
    c) the noun is further identified with a preposition phrase (“the boy on the left” and even works with some names like “America” vs. The United States of America”)
    d) The thing, or things are unique, or it can be inherently understood WHICH would be referred to (“Do you have the time?” or “What are the boys doing today?” I believe this is also the origin of “the hospital”, “the store”, “the bank”, as in many places, there would have been only one of these in the town!
    e) With superlatives because it refers to only one or one group (“the best restaurants” or “the richest”)
    f) For that remaining, or not mentioned yet, as in “the other” and “the others”.

    We don’t usually use “the” in front of names, with some notable exceptions (and many other exceptions that don’t follow the rules):
    1) We use “the” with names of oceans and rivers (“the Mississippi”, “the Indian Ocean”)
    2) We use “the” with names of mountain ranges (“the Andes”) but not with single mountains (“Mount Rushmore”)
    3) We use “the” with some countries (“the Philippines”, “the Congo”, “the Netherlands” PLUS most countries when using the full name, because you are identifying which Republic, States or Kingdom.

    Finally, one more use that hasn’t been mentioned yet is in front of adjectives for double comparatives (“the faster you read, the less you retain”)

    Many other exceptions would likely fall under the category of set expressions, which are idiomatic in nature, so you won’t find rules for these – they have to be memorized and repeated.

    Finally, my favourite example of how use of “the” can affect the meaning is in this grammatical minimal pair:
    “I’m going to park” vs. “I’m going to the park”.

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