What are the rules for using definite articles in English?

This is the second of four chapters about Articles. To complete this reader, read each chapter carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.   

– Introduce the concept of definite articles in English

– Explore when and why definite articles are used

– Provide examples for the eight uses of definite articles

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Chapter 2

Now that you’ve been introduced to the two English articles and their four variations, a good idea would be to focus on each type’s usage and rules individually. The first article is the definite article ‘the’, which is the most common word in the English language. Generally speaking, the definite article ‘the’ is used to refer to nouns which are either obviously a part of the situation or context being described, or those which are a part of the sentence or phrase that was referred to earlier in the same text. In other words, definite articles are usually used to inform the reader that they know (or will soon know) about the noun that the writer is referring to. Such a definition is of course an oversimplification, but it may still offer some overall guidance when selecting this type of article.

Before reading about the eight rules we’ve listed for correctly using the article ‘the’, it’s worth understanding some pronunciation differences for this word. The major pronunciation variation for ‘the’ is that it’s often (but not always) pronounced as /ðə/ before a consonant and /ðI/ before a vowel, such as in the following:

Articles 2.1 Pronouncing 'the'

1. Singular, Plural and Uncountable Nouns

Like indefinite articles, ‘the’ may be correctly used with singular nouns in certain contexts, such as ‘the teacher’ or ‘the school’. However, unlike indefinite articles, ‘the’ may also be used with both plural nouns such as ‘the teachers’ and uncountable nouns such as ‘the information’ or ‘the storage’.


2. Referring Backwards and Forwards

One aspect that’s unique to the definite article is that ‘the’ may be used to refer to nouns which have been mentioned previously in a text or that will be mentioned very shortly. Consider the following two examples:

Articles 2.2 Referring Backwards
Articles 2.3 Referring Forwards

In the previous example for referring backwards (anaphoric reference), the man in the first sentence is introduced using the indefinite article ‘a’. However, in the second sentence, this same man is then referred to with the definite article ‘the’. This sentence is therefore an example of using ‘the’ to refer backwards to an object or concept that’s already been introduced.

In the second example however, we can see that ‘the’ is now being used to refer forwards (cataphoric reference) to the students who will score highest in the quiz. Those students are not yet known to anyone, but as they will be determined in the future, ‘the’ may be used here to express such forwards reference.


3. Comparatives and Superlatives

The article ‘the’ is also used with certain types of comparative adjectives and all superlative adjectives, such as is shown in the following examples:

Articles 2.4 Comparatives Using 'Same'
Articles 2.5 Superlatives

4. Unique Nouns

The fourth rule is that when an object or concept that a noun refers to is considered to be unique – such as ‘the sun’ or ‘the president’, then the definite article ‘the’ is used to show this uniqueness.


5.Travel/Leisure Activities

‘the’ is also used for certain fixed expressions in which there is no other obvious rule, such as to describe the topics of travel and entertainment. Some of these words have been provided for you below:

Articles 2.6 Travel and Leisure Activities

6. Proper Nouns

Some proper noun categories also take the definite article ‘the’. Again, grammarians have been unable to find any concrete connection between the following categories, and so it’s simply best to list and remember them:

Articles 2.7 Proper Nouns

7. Spatial Expressions

Believe it or not, as many as 10% of all uses of the definite article ‘the’ are with spatial expressions, such as ‘the centre’, ‘the top’, ‘the beginning’ or ‘the end’. It’s therefore worth remembering to use this article type when using such expressions.


8. Defining Relative Clauses

Finally, when using relative clauses, native English speakers also tend to attach the definite article ‘the’ to the noun phrases, as is shown in the following:

Articles 2.8 Defining Relative Clauses

Now that you have a good understanding of when to use ‘the’, let’s continue to the next chapter which discusses the indefinite article ‘a/an’. Once you’ve finished our reader, you may then wish to use your Academic Marks to download our worksheets and check your comprehension.

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Once you’ve completed all four chapters about articles, you might also wish to download our beginner, intermediate and advanced worksheets to test your progress or print for your students. These professional PDF worksheets can be easily accessed for only a few Academic Marks.

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