The Uses of “The”
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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