We use the definite article ‘the’ in front of countable and uncountable nouns to talk about specific things, the only one of its kind, things everyone knows about, or, to refer back to something that’s already been mentioned.
- The window in my room is open. (specific window “in my room”)
- Did you buy your notebook in the shop near our college?
- I love this cafe; the croissants here are delicious. (refers to specific croissants of this cafe)
We can use ‘the’ in the following ways:
Known or mentioned person or thing
We use ‘the’ to refer back to a person or thing that has already been mentioned earlier or that is known from the context:
- There is an early train to London, so I suggest that we take the train. (refers back to ‘an early train’)
- This is a cat. The cat is grey, and its paws are white. (refers back to ‘a cat’)
- There are an apple and a pear on a plate. I will take the apple.
Clear from the context
We use ‘the’ when you assume there is just one of something in that place, even if it has not been mentioned before:
- We went on a walk in the forest yesterday.
- Where is the bathroom?
We use ‘the’ before one of a kind or unique things (names of places, planets, unique titles, etc.):
- Look at the moon; it’s so beautiful tonight.
- Tim is traveling across the Atlantic Ocean.
- The Pope is visiting Brazil next month.
Defined person or thing
We use ‘the’ to refer to specific things that are defined by a phrase, (often a relative clause), immediately following the noun:
- The novel I read yesterday was pretty interesting. (not any novel, but the one I read yesterday)
- The movie that I saw earlier will be on TV next week.
- The muffins that they sell here are absolutely delicious.
Whole group of people
We use ‘the’ with adjectives that act as nouns to describe a whole class or group of people or things:
- These luxurious estates are owned by the rich.
- People in our town always help the poor.
- The elderly always try to teach the young.
Noun referring to all
We use ‘the’ to say something about all the things referred to by a noun:
- 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)
- This is the best restaurant in the city.
- Michael prefers only the oldest artifacts for his collection.
- What is the biggest lake in the world?
We use ‘the’ before ordinal numbers and the words ‘first’, ‘last’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘only’:
- This is the first time I’ve been here.
- We’ve taken the wrong way!
- She is the only woman I love.
We use ‘the’ with common expressions such as in the morning; in the evening; in the afternoon; to/at the cinema/theater/movies; to/at the shop/market/store:
- Let’s go to the theater tonight.
- They came in the evening and stayed for half an hour.
- I’m running to the store. Do you need anything?
More common expressions that use ‘the’:
- all the same
- by the way
- in the afternoon/night
- on the one hand/on the other hand
- on the right/on the left
- on the whole
- the day after tomorrow
- the day before yesterday
- (one or) the other
- play the (piano/violin)
- to tell the truth
Although we do not normally use the definite article with names, there are some exceptions. They are covered in more detail in ‘Article with Proper Nouns‘. Here’s a short summary:
1. some countries – the United Kingdom; the United States; the Netherlands;
2. geographical features such as mountain ranges, groups of islands, rivers, seas, oceans and canals – the Himalayas; the Canaries; the Atlantic;
3. newspapers: The Times; The Washington Post;
4. well known buildings or works of art: the Taj Mahal; the Mona Lisa;
5. organisations: the United Nations;
6. hotels, pubs and restaurants (except for ending in ‘-‘s’): the Ritz, but: Morel’s Restaurant;
7. families: the Browns.
|Note: We use the indefinite articles ‘a’ and ‘an’ when the noun is not specific, known, or in any other case not mentioned above. But, sometimes we do not use an article at all. For certain uncountable nouns or when a noun is used to refer to a whole group or category, we do not use an article. We call this the zero article.|
Here’s a good video from EmgVid explaining how to use definite article: