When Do you Use the Definite Article in English?
➡️In English, there are two kinds of articles: definite articles and indefinite articles. An article is a word that comes before a noun. However, there is just one definite article: “the” in the English language. There are two indefinite articles: “a” and “an”. Are you comfortable knowing when to use the definite article? It is actually very complicated and I notice that some of my students who are learning English who are from Russia or from countries in Asia have more difficulty with this concept because articles are used differently in their native languages.
✅In simple terms, we use “the” in English in front of nouns that are singular and plural to describe something that is unique or when there is only one of something. For example, “We live on the second floor of our apartment.” Also, if you are talking about a capital city you could say, “The capital city of the United States is Washington D.C.”
😁There are many differences in geography that you need to be aware of when using the definite article. You can see in the visuals that I’ve created that the article is used for rivers: The Wapsi river, BUT NOT for lakes: Lake Monroe. However, if it is plural, you use it: The Great Lakes.
When Not to Use the Definite Article in English
For the most part, we DO NOT use the definite article in English when we talk in general about something and we DO use it when we describe specific and particular things or groups of people.
🎸We use “the” for musical instruments. “I play the piano and I have been playing the violin my entire life.” However, you could talk about musical instruments in general and use the plural form without “the.” Take this example: “The shop sells many different kinds of guitars and I am looking forward to buying an electric guitar. Nonetheless, I see the shop features the electric guitar in its catalogue.” In the previous example, the catalogue refers to the general type of musical instrument, while the one the person wants to buy is one particular guitar, which is why it doesn’t require the definite article.
🤖Also, we use the definite article in English when describing machines, appliances, and inventions. You could say, “I really enjoy using the new vacuum cleaner.” Also, “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.”
💦When you use “the” it provides more specificity to the item you are referring to. In fact, It describes a particular item. Rather if you use “a” to describe the same machine, it is more general. For example, “I really need to buy a new vacuum cleaner for my house.” This example contrasts with an example that talks about the particular machine/invention: “The vacuum cleaner is a useful invention that we use to clean our carpets.”
🦉When describing specific kinds of animals, we use “the.” For example, the Great Horned Owl is a large owl native to the Americas.” However, if you mention animals in the plural, you would simply say, “cats, dogs, geese, or birds” without the article. Also, if you want to point out one particular animal that you see, you could use “a” or “an”: I went to the zoo last week and saw a giraffe eating a leaf from a tall tree.” 🦒
Examples of the Definite Article in English
💵You can also use “the” when talking about currency: the dollar, the yen, the peso, the real, the ruble. For example, “The peso’s exchange rate is 2% higher this week.” Compare that sentence which talks about a particular currency with this one: “I have a peso in my wallet and plan on buying a few candies at the candy store.” Again, when I use the indefinite article, I am highlighting the fact that there is one particular peso in my wallet.
🌎On the other hand, when you are talking about countries, continents, cities, towns, street names, squares, and names of avenues, you don’t need to use “the.” For example, It is my dream to visit Tokyo, Japan, which is located in Asia. I might visit Yoyogi Park and Hachiko square. ⭐️There are a few countries to be aware of. Ukraine doesn’t need “the” anymore because it is no longer a republic of the Soviet Union. Also, The Gambia is named after a river, so it does have the article.
🏙The truth is that I lived in New York City for a number of years and I became familiar with some of the landmarks that make the city so unique. I toured the Empire State building, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and ate at Giovanni’s for dinner. These are examples of buildings, monuments, and landmarks (article more often than not), and a restaurant named after a person (no article).
👵🏽👵🏽When we talk about groups of people, we use “the” as well. Some examples to illustrate this point are: “The injured, the poor, the elderly, the young, the rich, the unemployed.” However, if you talk about one person in that group, you would specify and say, “I saw an elderly man yesterday” or “Did you know that she is a poor girl?”
☘️The same rule applies to talking about different nationalities. For example, “The Irish are vibrant and funny people.” However, you could mention one Irish woman and say, “Silvia is an Irish woman.” Remember, though, that you have to say a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman because you can’t ⛔️ say “A French.”
A PDF about the Definite Article in ENGLISH
Here are some exercises with the definite article in English. Write “the” if it requires the definite article or “x” in the blank if it doesn’t require the definite article.
- Do you play _____ trumpet?
- Could you please pass ______ salt.
- Have you ever been to _____Michigan?
- What is the exchange rate between ____dollar and ____peso?
Would you like to do more practice exercises. I would like to direct you to my wonderful resource that explains the use of the definite article in detail. You will finally understand this tricky grammar rule once and for all after you do the exercises. English
Watch a Video about the Definite Article
In this video, I provide you with some clear examples of when to use the definite article in English. I give some example of geographical features, places in the city, and names of hotels and buildings.
Would you like even more practice?
Check out the link to the BBC’s website about the definite article. You can complete a few dialogues that will allow you to better understand this concept.