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Definite Article: Using The

Even though it is such a small word and it is used so often, “the” can cause many problems for people learning English. This article looks at when you should or shouldn’t use “the” and finishes with a short exercise to help you practice.

Before we start explaining the rules, we had better review some key terms: count noun, non-count noun (also called countable noun and non-countable noun), definite noun, indefinite nouns and generic nouns.

Count nouns: Normally, if you can easily count individual things, then they are count nouns. A cup is an example of a count noun because you can say one cup, two cups, three cups etc.…

Non-count nouns: If you can’t count something or it is very difficult to count something, it is usually a non-count noun. Water is a non-count noun because you can’t say one water, two waters etc. Rice is also a non-count noun; although we could count individual rice grains, it isn’t a practical thing to do.

Definite nouns: If you think about a specific thing or assume the listener knows which thing you are talking about, then this is a definite noun.

Indefinite nouns: these are actual things but are not individually identified.

Generic noun: When you are talking about things in general rather than a particular thing, then that thing is a generic noun. A generic noun, therefore, is a symbol for a whole group of things. For example: “Wheat is used to make bread”. This is using wheat as a generic noun. For an opposite example, look at this sentence “The wheat in this bread is from my uncle’s farm”. In this case, we know which wheat you are talking about; the wheat from my uncle’s farm, so here wheat is a definite noun.

You can use “the” when you are using a definite noun. The noun can be singular, plural, count noun or non-count noun.

“Thanks for the dollar you gave me, Daddy!”

The boy used the forty dollars he earned from his newspaper round to buy a new computer game.

He used the money to buy his grandma a birthday present.

When you are making generalisations, don’t use ‘the’ with plural count nouns or non-count nouns.  However, you do use ‘the’ with singular count nouns.

The mangoes are a very popular fruit across the whole world. (Incorrect)

Mangoes are a very popular fruit all across the world. (Correct)

The mango is a very popular fruit all across the world. (Correct)

The cheddar is a kind of cheese that originally came from South West England. (Incorrect)

Cheddar is a kind of cheese that originally came from South West England. (Correct)

The globalisation means that more and more people are learning English. (Incorrect)

Globalisation means that more and more people are learning English. (Correct)

You use “the” when you are talking about a definite noun, while “a” is used for an indefinite noun. Compare the following sentences.

He gave me a pen. (We don’t know which pen)

He gave me the pen. (We know which pen)

An important thing to remember is that we use “the” for the second mention of an indefinite noun.

At the end of the street, we could see some men. The men were trying to move a car. The car had broken down in the middle of the street.

Notice that the first time we mention men, we say “some men”. The second time we mention men, we say “the men”. The first time we mention car, we say “a car”. The next time we say “the car”.

However, when we don’t use “the” when the second-mentioned noun is a generic noun.

How tall does an oak tree grow? An oak tree can grow to about 100 feet tall.

Just to confuse matters you can sometimes use “the” with a single generic noun (but not a plural form of a generic noun nor a generic non-count noun). It is often used with the following but remember if you do want to use a plural form don’t use “the”:

Inventions

The mobile phone has changed the way we communicate in the twenty-first century.

OR

Mobile phones have changed the way we communicate in the twenty-first century.

Species of animal

The cheetah is the fastest land animal.

OR

Cheetahs are the fastest land animals.

Musical instruments

My daughters are learning how to play the piano.

When referring to something that is unique

The Queen, the human race

Summary

Type of nounUse which one?
Singular definite nounthe
Plural definite nounthe
Definite non-count nounthe
Singular generic nouna
Unless special nouns such as inventions, animal species, musical instruments or unique thingsthe
Plural generic nounsneither
Non-count generic nounsneither
The second mention of an indefinite nounthe
The second mention of a generic nounneither

Quiz

Which one goes in the blank space “the”, “a”, “an” or “X”?

Thanks for ___ present, Grandma!

 ___ globalisation has brought many changes to __society.

There are some boys playing football in ___ Hyde Park.  ___ boys look like they are having a good time.

___ violin is a very difficult instrument to play well.

___mobile phones make communication very convenient.

___ mobile phone makes communication very convenient.