'the' or zero article?

R Malik from Pakistan writes:

I am always confused when to put the before the noun. Is there any rule how to use it?

Roger Woodham replies:

This is a complex area and correct use of articles is one of the most difficult things to get right in English. However, there are a few basic ground rules which we can try to follow and I will set them out below. I cannot cover everything in a single reply, but I will try to mention the most important.

referring to particular 'definite' things or people: the

When it is clear to both people in the interaction which things or people are being referred to, we use the:

  • The children (= our children) must be awake. I can hear John playing the piano in the sitting room (i.e. in our house)

  • The book you gave me last weekend was so exciting. I couldn't put it down.

  • When you next go to the supermarket, could you get me some pizza bases?

second or subsequent mention: the

When we refer to something for the first time, we use an indefinite article (a/an) because the person we are talking to knows nothing about it. But when it is recognised or known, we use the:

  • I saw a squirrel in the garden (= our garden) this morning ~ Was it a red squirrel or a grey squirrel? ~ It was a grey squirrel. I think the squirrel was looking for a nut it had buried under the apple tree (i.e. the apple tree in our garden).

unique objects: the

When we refer to unique aspects of our environment that everybody is familiar with, we use the:

  • I love listening to the wind and the rain beating on the window panes when I am inside my cottage.

  • One day I would like to fly to the moon and visit the nearest planets.

categories or groups of people: the

If we are referring to groups of people the is required. Here are some examples:

  • The homeless are well looked after at Christmas, but not at other times of the year.

  • The poor may benefit more from the tax change than the better-off.

with superlatives: the

It is normal to insert the before the adjective + noun in superlative sentences as there is only one of its kind in this category:

  • Jane is quite a good swimmer.

  • Rachel is a better swimmer.

  • But Jacky is undoubtedly the best swimmer in the class

seas / rivers / mountain ranges / island groups / deserts : the

  • I would never swim in the English Channel. It's far too polluted.

  • Did you see the fireworks on the Thames on the Eve of the New Millenium?

  • Have you ever been skiing in the Alps?

  • Would you choose the Leeward Islands or the Windward Islands if you were thinking of a holiday in the Caribbean?

  • The Gobi Desert is one of the most inhospitable places in the world.
    continents / most countries / counties / states / towns / buildings / most streets / lakes / most single mountains : zero article

'Most' in the above listing indicates that there are occasional exceptions to the general rule of no article before examples in these categories. See below:

  • Cairo is a good example of a city in Egypt where Asia and Africa meet.

  • The UK, Ireland, the US and Canada are all popular destinations for students of English who want to study overseas.

  • Buckingham Palace, the main residence of the Queen is located at the end of the Mall in central London

  • Lake Como has always been popular as a holiday retreat for the English.

  • Kent and Essex are to the Thames what Lousiana and Mississippi are to the Mississippi river.

  • Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn are two well-known mountains in the French and Swiss Alps.


    things in general: zero article

When we are discussing things in general, we normally use zero article with plural and uncountable nouns:

  • Formal education in Britain begins when children reach the age of five.

  • Basketball is more popular in China than football.

  • Patience and gratitude are qualities which are rarely observed in the youth of today.

But note, when we want to be specific:

  • The education I received was substandard.

  • The football played by Liverpool in their last match was awesome.
    common expressions: zero article

There are a number of common fixed expressions used with certain prepositions involving everyday time and place nouns where zero article is required:

  • At university I never bother with lunch, but always eat breakfast and supper. At school I always ate lunch and dinner, but never breakfast.

  • In Newcastle, you can always get into town late at night and home again by tube, bus or taxi.

Note that the prepositions listed above are often not the only prepositions possible. We can also say e.g. to/at/into/from church and to/in/into/out of bed/prison.


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