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 The definite article, 'the'

Two questions this week on the use of the definite article, the.

Yang Xi from China writes:
I am a beginner but one question has troubled me for a long time. It may be easy, but it is difficult for me. The question is: when do we place the in front of a noun and when do we take it away?

Raufhameed from Pakistan writes: I am a bit confused this week about the use of the definite article. Grammar books are too comprehensive and don't satisfy me. I would like to know more about the use of the definite article in daily language. Is this sentence correct:
'He has been working at the Indus Dolphin Reserve for over 25 years'?


Roger replies:more questions

always use the definite article

a) before singular and plural nouns when you are talking about things that both speakers know about.

In your example, Raufhameed, both speakers know all about the dolphin reserve, so use of the definite article is clearly correct.

Further examples:

  • 'These are the books that I borrowed from the library.' (We can see the books and we know where the library is.)

  • 'Where are the stamps I bought yesterday?' (You know the ones I mean. You were with me when I bought them.)

  • 'What did you think of the film?' (I am talking about the one you saw last night)

b) with certain geographical locations or areas, collections of states or islands, mountain ranges, seas and rivers - if you are not sure where any of the following places are, check them out in an atlas:

The People's Republic of China, The United Kingdom, The United States of America, The Philippines, The Bahamas, The Netherlands, The Channel Islands, The Far East, The Alps, The Andes, The Cairngorms, The Himalayas, The Rockies, The Hindu Kush, The Pacific Ocean, The Mediterranean, The Dead Sea, The Black Sea, The Arabian Sea, The Thames, The Yangtze, The Ganges, The White Nile, The Mississippi, The Amazon

c) with groups of people, and with musical and scientific instruments and animals when you are discussing them as categories:
  • 'The hospital in Cheery Orchard Avenue is a hospital for the elderly and infirm.'

  • 'The poor are always disadvantaged in contemporary society.

  • 'Matilda is learning to play the trumpet; her brother plays the drums.'

  • 'Who invented the telescope?' 'The first one was made by Galileo in 1608.'

  • 'The Bengali tiger is threatened with extinction.'

  • 'The Manx cat is native to the Isle of Man.

always omit the definite article

d) when making general statements about things, people and abstract ideas. In the following examples, a general statement
(= - the) is contrasted with a specific reference (= + the):

  • 'I enjoy reading contemporary fiction - especially the novels of David Lodge.'

  • 'Poverty is one of the scourges of the 21st Century.'

  • 'The poverty I witnessed in the inner city slums was indescribable.'

  • 'You don't often see people drinking beer at cocktail parties.'
e) when talking about particular countries, continents, towns, streets, buildings, lakes and mountains: China, Pakistan, America, England, (Great) Britain, South America, Central America.
  • 'Genoa is in Northern Italy.'

  • 'Valencia is in Southern Spain.'

  • 'They are both in Europe.'

  • 'Westminster Abbey is near Parliament Square - at the top end of Victoria Street.'

  • 'Lake Windermere is in the Lake District.'

  • 'Everest and K2 are the two tallest mountains in the world.
f) when talking about transport, meals, games in general terms and with certain time expressions, months, seasons, etc.
  • 'I'm going by car, but Andy's going by train.'

  • 'Would you like to have lunch now?' 'I haven't had breakfast yet!'

  • 'In this school we play rugby in the autumn term and football in the spring term. In summer everybody plays tennis.'

  • 'Next Friday is the last day of term. In August the school is closed.'
For further illustrations and explanations of how to use articles in English, check the learnit archive and search other questions. Go to the Determiners, nouns and pronouns section and take a look particularly at the questions on the/a/an and using articles with geographical names.

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