Articles are a common problem for many learners, especially from Slavic countries such as the Czech Republic. I’m sometimes surprised that even students in proficiency-level (C2) classes commonly miss out on ‘a’ or ‘an’ as well as ‘the’, ‘some’ and ‘any’ when they speak.
And often they don’t even know it.
But does it matter..?
Usually a native speaker will understand fine when you don’t use articles correctly, but if you’re already advanced, this is something you can definitely look at as a way to sound more natural.
Today let’s look at ways to use the definite article, ‘the’, which is apparently *the* most common word in the entire English language!
First up, a very brief reminder. Often when we introduce an countable noun, we use ‘a/an’:
That’s a nice painting.
Now that we know what we’re talking about, the next time we talk about the painting, we use ‘the’ (as I did just a few words ago):
The painting really suits the room.
‘A/an’ is used when we’re talking about ‘one of many.’ For example, you’re over for dinner at a friend’s, and you ask them:
Could you pass me a spoon? – Maybe your friend forgot to give you one, so you are asking for a spoon. Maybe you can see there are many spoons in the kitchen or you assume your friend has many spoons, so you ask for a spoon.
However, if there is only one spoon on the table, you can say:
Could you pass me the spoon?
‘The’ is particularly used when we know which one thing we are talking about.
The “Which?” Test
Often ‘the‘ is used because either there is only one of it, or because we know what it is we are talking about.
Jim: “Which shirt do you prefer?”
Pavlina: “I like the green one. The grey one looks a little boring..”
Like in the above example, ‘the‘ is used often because we are specifying which one we are talking about:
I opened the window and a bird flew in (= I’m talking about the window which I opened because maybe I was feeling cold or maybe it’s the window to the room I just mentioned)
I painted the whole house myself (= usually this will mean the house where I live)
- The guy in the car in front of the cafe looks a bit nervous
Here I’m specifying that it is
- 1. the guy (who I am perhaps pointing out)
- 2. who is in the car (the car which we can see)
- 3. in front of the cafe (eg the cafe across the road which we are looking at)
One more example:
- I see you’re wearing the shirt I gave you (= I am specifying which shirt)
If the speaker had just said this:
- I see you’re wearing the shirt
The speaker here is using ‘the‘ because, for example, maybe he gave the shirt to her as a present. Or maybe she talked about this shirt last night on the phone.
Let’s Look At This Lexically
Many students have studied articles since they were nice cute beginners, and 10 years later you’re still having problems! If this is you, then instead of thinking of articles in a grammatical way, you can look at them in a lexical way.
What do I mean here?
Often times articles are present in highly frequent phrases and expressions. If you know the phrase, then you don’t need to think of ‘the’ as being an item of grammar, but rather a part of a collocation or word partnership.
Word partnerships are when two or more words come together to form a useful item of vocabulary.
Here’s a short guide which I hope illustrates my point, and which I hope you’ll find useful!
Common Expressions With ‘The’
1. I bumped into Jill the other day. She’s looking great.
The other day = recently, but the exact day isn’t important
2. I really like you Bill. The thing is, I just don’t feel this is working…
The thing is = used to introduce some news which is difficult for you to say or to introduce an idea which is harder to express
3. On the one hand, I really love Kelly Brook*. On the other hand, she has just left her boyfriend and she’s not ready for a new relationship.
On the other hand is a very common expression to introduce a contrast.
4. I like the way you have done this, Pavel.
5. I heard about his arrest on the radio.
We listen to the radio, listen to the BBC.
6. How often are you on the internet?
Yes, when you’re talking about the idea of the internet, it’s with an article. Suddenly 1 million Czech students choke on their breakfast: ,Važne! Internet táky má the, to je blbost!’
7. Do you have the time?/What’s the time?
The two phrases above are fixed. Interestingly if you asked “What’s time?” it sounds like you’re asking a philosophical question. Hmm, what is time..Let me grab my pipe and a book and I’ll think about it..
If you ask someone “Do you have time?” then you are asking if they free to speak to you for a moment (= Are you free?).
8. Where’s Pavel’s School of English? It’s on the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets.
9. I was walking down the street when I bumped into Henry.
10. The weather‘s great this time of year, isn’t it?
11. Sorry, I can’t talk now, I’m on the phone with someone in London.
12. Have you heard the news?! I’m getting married!
Likewise, you can say: Sorry, I’m watching the news, can I call you back in a minute?
13. This is the first time I’ve been here.
14. I think the right thing to do is tell your boyfriend about it.
15. I’m afraid he’s out of the office just now. Can I take a message?
Note: “I am at the office” but “I am at work” (not “the work”) in this context.
16. What’s the difference between English in Scotland and England?
17. We’ve just put our house on the market (= we want to sell our house)
18. What the heck/f*ck are you doing here, man!?
19. We just spent the whole day shopping!
20. Sorry, I’m not really in the mood for that. How about we watch a DVD instead?
21. Tell me the truth – do you love him?
22. Hey what’s the problem?!
You can also add:
What’s the matter?
What’s the big deal with Frozen?
23. I’m thinking of taking the day off tomorrow.
24. Well, the problem is that we just don’t have enough money.
25. The issue here is whether we want to give up some freedoms in exchange for national security..
* [This example was for Sylvie, who loves Kelly]
Everyday Experiences And Activities
I’m sure you’ve heard this sentence before:
- I went to the pub last night with Sara.
Collocations like this are usually used with ‘the’ to talk about the idea of having this experience rather than focussing on the specific location:
- We’re going to the opera tonight
- I haven’t been to the theatre for ages
- Let’s go to the cinema tonight, what do you think?
- We went to the beach today
Compare why ‘the‘ is used in “I went to the pub last night” with using ‘a’ in the following:
- L’amant statue is an opera which you might like.
- It’s a lovely theatre, and they spent lots to restore it.
- I think there’s a cinema in Bourke Street, maybe they’ll have Kelly Brook’s latest film.
- Is there a good beach near the centre?
Compare these as well:
- We ended up in a small pub near the centre (you’re focussing on the location, the building where you went to)
- We went to the pub in Smithson Street (you’re using ‘the’ here to say there is only one pub in this street)
Note that when we talk about the experience but there’s a gerund that acts as a noun, there is no article:
- We went clubbing
- We went swimming
Out And About In Town
- I’ll be back in a sec – just going to the chemist.
- I need to go to the doctor.
- I should go to the supermarket before it shuts.
- I’m meeting Kelly later today at the station.
- Let’s meet in the centre/the city.
- Why don’t we catch the train into town? Or do you prefer the bus? (but go by train/bus is without ‘the’ 🙂 )
- Hurry up, the bus is coming!
- Sorry I’m late, the subway/the tube/the underground was just crazy!
- The traffic‘s terrible, maybe we should go down Smith Street instead.
Ordering Your Points (eg at a meeting)
- The first thing to mention is..
- The first point I’d like to make is…
- The next issue to discuss is…
- Let’s move on to the next matter..
- The final point is…
The most useful structure here is this one:
- The more people that come to the party, the better.
- The more the merrier
- The sooner we finish, the quicker we’ll get home.
You can start a sentence with ‘the more‘ or ‘the sooner‘ and finish it with the + comparative.
Did you read the photo above: “The more you chase happiness, the more it eludes you..”
- It was the best play I’ve ever seen.
- It was the most important decision I’ve made.
- She was the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met.
- He was the most interesting person at the party.
When you’re using a superlative structure, you need to use ‘the’ to express ‘the largest amount.’
If you don’t use ‘the’, then you might change the meaning a little:
He was most interesting = he was VERY interesting
He was THE most interesting = he was more interesting than everyone else there
Here are some more phrases or common examples you will use:
- The most important thing is..
- The most interesting/beautiful/amazing girl in the world
- The least attractive/interesting city I’ve ever been to
- The fastest..
- The slowest..
- The biggest..
- The smallest..
- The greatest..
- The longest..
- The cheapest..
- The most expensive..
- The deepest..
- The funniest..
- The hardest..
- The easiest..
- The strongest..
- The weakest..
- Sorry, I’m afraid it’s the best we can do
- The best we can do is wait/pray
- It was the best/worst (play/city) I’ve ever seen
- Hey, what’s the worst thing that can happen?!
Talking About Countries And Other Geographical Items
Most countries do NOT take an article (eg Australia, Great Britain, Canada). However a few do:
- THE USA, The UK, The Philippines, The Czech Republic, The Slovak Republic, The European Union
Rivers take an article:
- The Nile, the Yarra, the Vltava, the Thames
Groups of mountains and lakes take an article:
- The Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes (but an individual mountain or lake doesn’t, such as Mt Buller or Lake Ontario)
A group of islands takes an article, but not a single island:
- The Bahamas, The Caribbean (compare it to ‘Mallorca’)
Oceans and seas use ‘the’:
- The Pacific Ocean, The English Channel, The Tasman Sea, The Mediterranean
For bridges, it seems to depend on whether it’s a ‘new’ country or an old one:
- The Golden Gate Bridge, The Lions Gate Bridge, The Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Westgage Bridge
But -> Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Charles Bridge (in Europe)
Deserts also take the definite article:
- The Sahara, The Arabian Desert
These Ones Are Hopefully Easy To Remember
- The Moon, the Sun, the horizon, the world
Inventions, Machines, Instruments
- The telephone was first used in 1927 by James Pagliaro.
- The internet was invented by Honza Sweetnam in 1989 after a U2 concert went horribly wrong.
- I play the piano.
Like many of these examples, of course you can also say:
- Do you have a telephone? I need to call my sister.
- Wow, you have a piano!
Currencies take an article:
- The dollar has fallen this year against the pound.
So it becomes: the Australian dollar, the Euro, the ruble.
When you speak about a general amount of money there is no article:
- That comes to fifty dollars, thank you.
Money is usually uncountable so there is no ‘the’ when speaking about it in general:
- Money is really important in a marriage.
If you specify which money you are talking about, then you can use ‘the’:
Hi Jim, here’s the money I owe you from last week..
I read the news in:
- The Guardian, The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Globe And Mail, The Telegraph
Magazines don’t usually take an article:
- I read it in Elle/Vogue/People/Sports Illustrated
When we talk about Barrack Obama, we don’t use ‘the’. However, when we refer to his position, we do:
- The President was criticised for playing golf during an important day.
Likewise, we say the German Chancellor, the Pope, the Delai Lama . In Australia the Prime Minister is Tony Abbott, whereas in the UK it is David Cameron.
You can use ‘the’ in front of regular names such as in the following example:
Sam: I played tennis with Rodger Federer the other day.
Adela: No! Not the Roger Federer?!!
With plurals, we use the definite article:
- Have you seen what car the Jones just bought?!
- I just spoke to the neighbours
Groups of people take an article:
- The rich, the poor, the unemployed, the French
Sex, Love And Other Catastrophes
- It’s ok without a condom, I’m on the pill.
Now you know when a woman is on the pill, it’s with the definite article.
- I really like the missionary position.
If you’re not sure what this is, google it – but please come back and leave a comment that you’re happy to know this also takes ‘the’.
- The moment I saw Natalia, I went over and talked to her. I made the first move, for sure.
When You’re Telling A Story/Talking About Dates
I saw Harold the night before last = Not last night, but the night before last night
I played tennis in town the day before yesterday = not yesterday, but the day before
I met her one afternoon in winter, and we got married the following day!
Other phrases which you can use in discussing dates:
- The day after tomorrow
- It’s the first of June (note that some just say “June first”)
- I’ve seen her a lot in the last year (but “last year” here has no article)
When giving a deadline or talking about a deadline:
- By the end of October, we will have sold all our remaining shirts.
- This is due at the beginning of the month