Definition and Uses of the Definite Article 'the' in English

Glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

The words "The Winner" in golld glitter
  cougarsan/Getty Images

In English, the definite article the is a determiner that refers to particular nouns.

As Laurel J. Brinton has noted, "There are several different uses for each article, articles are often omitted, and there are dialectal differences in the use of articles. Thus, article usage can be an area of grammar which is very difficult for non-native speakers to master" (The Linguistic Structure of Modern English, 2010).

Examples of 'the' in Sentences

  • "She closed the carton carefully. First, she kissed her father, then she kissed her mother. Then she opened the lid again, lifted the pig out, and held it against her cheek."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper, 1952)
  • "Now, as always, the most automated appliance in a household is the mother."
    (Beverly Jones, 1970)
  • "Horseshoes are lucky. Horses have four bits of lucky nailed to their feet. They should be the luckiest animals in the world. They should rule the country."
    (Eddie Izzard, Definite Article, 1996)
  • "Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer."
    (Jessamyn West)
  • "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading."
    (Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)
  • "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."
    (Thomas Jefferson)
  • "It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."
    (Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. Harper, 1966)
  • "You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since--on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets."
    (Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861)
  • "The barbarians come out at night. Before darkness falls the last goat must be brought in, the gates barred, a watch set in every lookout to call the hours."
    (J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians. Secker & Warburg, 1980)

The Various Pronunciations of 'the'

"The pronunciation of the definite article changes, depending upon the initial sound of the word that it precedes. If the word begins with a consonant sound, the e in the is pronounced 'uh': the (thuh) ball, the (thuh) bat. If the word begins with a vowel sound, the e makes a long vowel sound like in sweet: the (thee) automobile, the (thee) exorcist."
(Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Henry Holt, 2004)

Major Uses of 'the'

"In broad outline, the major uses of the are the following:

1. for something previously mentioned: yesterday I read a book . . . the book was about space travel (This is the anaphoric, or 'pointing back,' function of the definite article);
2. for a unique or fixed referent: the Prime Minister, the Lord, the Times, the Suez Canal;
3. for a generic referent: (I love) the piano, (We are concerned about) the unemployed;
4. for something which is part of the immediate socio-physical context or generally known: the doorbell, the kettle, the sun, the weather;
5. for something identified by a modifying expression either preceding or immediately following the noun: the gray horse, the house at the end of the block; and
6. for converting a proper noun to a common noun: the England he knew, the Shakespeare of our times, the Hell I suffered."

(Laurel J. Brinton and Donna M. Brinton, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. John Benjamins, 2010)

Use of the Definite Article Before Familiar Nouns

"Definite articles are . . . used when the speaker assumes that because the listener belongs to the same community, he or she shares specific knowledge of their surroundings. For example, if two people who work in the same place are discussing where to meet for lunch, one of them might say something like the first sentence in (36):

Rebecca: Let's meet at the cafeteria at 12:15.
Paul: Okay, I'll see you then.

Here, the definite article is used because both speakers are part of the same work community; the cafeteria is part of their shared knowledge."
(Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Definite Articles Before Proper Names

"We only use proper names with a stressed definite article when the person is famous or when we doubt his identity in spite of knowing his name, as in Are you THE Bill Hunter?, implying that there may be different persons of the same name but one is better known than the others. . . .

"The situation is different with geographical names, or toponyms, which are notorious for their seemingly unsystematic use: some have no article, others have the definite article. Whether a geographical name is used with or without a definite article is often a matter of historical accident. . . .

"The names of most countries such as Canada take no article, which reflects their conceptualisation of a clearly bounded political entity. Countries or geographical areas that are seen as collections of political units take a plural proper name with the definite article, as in the United States, the Netherlands, and the Baltics.

"A clear instance of a semantic opposition between the zero-article form and the definite article is found in the names of states such as Ohio and names of rivers such as the Ohio. States are clearly bounded political entities, while rivers are natural phenomena that may stretch for hundreds, even thousands of miles so that we do not have their overall extension in mind. Most river names, therefore, require the definite article to mark an unbounded entity as a unique referent."
(Günter Radden and René Dirven, Cognitive English Grammar. John Benjamins, 2007)

The Most Common Word

"The is the most commonly used word in the English language, occurring nearly 62,000 times in every million words written or uttered--or about once in every 16 words. That's more than twice as often as the runner-up, of. . . .

"Americans do have a thing for the word the. We say 'in the hospital' and 'in the spring'; the British sensibly omit the article. They favor collective or purely regional sports team names, such as Manchester United or Arsenal, while we have the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Angels (which when you translate the Spanish becomes 'the the Angels Angels'), and such syntactical curiosities as the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic."

(Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Broadway Books, 2007)

Usage Tip From David Marsh

"Leaving 'the' out often reads like jargon: say the conference agreed to do something, not 'conference agreed'; the government has to do, not 'government has to'; the Super League (rugby), not 'Super League.'"
(David Marsh, Guardian Style. Guardian Books, 2007)

The Lighter Side of the Definite Article

"What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common?

"They have the same middle name."
(Ted Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. The University of Chicago Press, 1999)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Uses of the Definite Article 'the' in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Definition and Uses of the Definite Article 'the' in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Uses of the Definite Article 'the' in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).