Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Definite Article (the)

Definite and indefinite articles are difficult for speakers whose native language does not contain them. This is a problem which most students must struggle with for years, but it is possible to learn how to use articles correctly or at least greatly improve your usage of them. It just requires patience, practice, and attention to detail.

Extended exposure to English is, in the end, the best way to mastering articles. Reading often and observing how and where articles are used will help a lot. As with most aspects of any language, there are no “laws” or “rules” for articles which apply 100% of the time. Grammar is not prescriptive, but descriptive. That is, grammar does not make rules but describes how a language is spoken.

Still, there are general patterns of usage for articles which can be logically described and which you can learn. The following is a list of these patterns (“rules”) which will help you decide when, and when not, to use an article.

Use the definite article . . .

with a noun that has been previously mentioned:

I saw a film last night. The film was very interesting.

with postmodification of nouns – this is perhaps the most useful “rule” to remember. If the noun is followed by a relative clause (beginning with words like who, which, that, etc.) or a prepositional phrase (beginning with a preposition: of, in, to, etc.), then the definite article is needed. These postmodifications make the noun specific, and therefore we use the definite article:

I study history. But-- I study the history of biology.
Can you see the man in the blue sweater?
The friend who I told you about is coming.

Notice that sometimes the relative pronoun may not actually be present, though it is still implied:

The friend I told you about is coming.
The woman I spoke with on the phone had a nice voice.

for unique objects – if there is only one of something, or it is clear from the context which one is meant:

The sun, the prime minister, the capital (city),
the universe, the pope

this includes superlatives:

They say that the best beer comes from Belgium.
The Nile is the longest river in the world.
That was the most exciting day of my life.

and ranking adjectives:

The answer is on the third page.
I live on the second floor.
The last lesson will be on Friday.

with periods of time:

the fourteenth century, the 1960s, the Middle Ages

with species – use the definite article with the singular form when speaking about the species as such

The elephant lives in Africa and India.
The dodo was extinct by the seventeenth century.
I am interested in the mating habits of the porcupine.

with plural nationality:

The Chinese invented paper.
The French drink more wine than beer.

to discuss groups of people (the + adjective):

the rich, the homeless, the unemployed, the dead

with certain phrases:

the same
We have the same car.
Romanian and Moldovan are the same language.

the right
Is this the right article to use?
I don’t know the right answer.

the wrong
We got on the wrong bus.
I set my alarm clock for the wrong time.

with places associated with entertainment:

the theater, the cinema, the opera, the ballet, the pub


Is there a pub near here?
I think there is a cinema on this street.

with modes of public transportation:

Let’s take the bus.
I take the metro to work every day.
I don’t like taking the tram.

Do not use the definite article. . .

for generic meaning:

x scientists think that the universe is at least ten billion years old.
I love x animals.

with abstract nouns (without postmodification):
I would like to study x philosophy.
x love is an illusion.
I am very interested in x art.
The Prime Minister wants to reduce x poverty.

with premodification – if the noun is preceded by a word like this, that, these, some, any, each, every, no, none, my, etc.:

x my friend is quite funny.
x these apples are delicious.
I love x all kinds of music.

with singular proper nouns (names):

x Prague, x Edith, x Windsor Castle, x Cambridge University

Geography and the definite article

Use the definite article . . .

with the names of oceans, seas, and rivers:

the Atlantic Ocean, the Dead Sea, the Ganges

with the names of deserts:

the Sahara, the Painted Desert

with mountain ranges:

the Rocky mountains, the Alps, the High Tatras

with groups of islands:

the Canary Islands, the Hawaiian Islands, the Bahamas

with the names of certain countries:

a) countries whose name is plural:

the Netherlands, the Philippines

b) countries with republic, kingdom, federation, etc.

the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation

c) other exceptions*

(the) Ukraine, (the) Sudan, (the) Congo

*countries are in this last category due to etymological and historical reasons, and it is acceptable to omit the article

Do not use the definite article . . .

with lakes:

x Lake Victoria, x Loch Ness, x Lake Michigan

with individual mountains:

x Mount Blanc, x Mount Everest, x Mount Kilimanjaro

with names of countries (other than those exceptions discussed above):

x France, x Chile, x Mali

with names of cities:

x the Bratislava, x the New York, x the Osaka

there is one exception to this: The Hague

* * *

That’s all for now. Remember that these are not rules but patterns, and there may be exceptions. The definite article has been evolving along with the English language for at least 1,500 years, so it is bound to be complex!


Anonymous said...

is it "an 11.7 mmHg increase" or "a 11.7 mmHg increase"?

Please clarify.

Professor Hapsburg said...

It is "an 11.7 mmHg increase," as eleven begins with a vowel. Please note, however, that it is not the letter (vowel or consonant) which determines the article, but rather the sound. Thus, we say "an MP3" and "a University" - contrary to the mistaken 'rule' that consonants are preceded by 'a' and vowels by 'an'.

Darren said...

This is a great, concise explanation for the use of direct articles.

Thank you,


Anonymous said...

Nice work on the definite article - but how about a word on nature?
This is a word that causes many problems for non-native English speakers.

Professor Monsewer said...

Nice tutorial - but what about nature? Many non-native English speakers have problems with whether to use the definite article with this noun.

Rochelle said...

I love you!!! I have been trying to find a way to discuss the definite article. You've given a wonderfully clear explanation, and for that, I am quite grateful!

Anonymous said...

That's a great article! Thanks for posting it!:)You've really helped me to understand those rules:)