As you watch the video, look at the examples of the definite article. They are in red in the subtitles. Then read the conversation below to learn more. Finally, do the grammar exercises to check you understand, and can use, the definite article correctly.
Daisy: How's the birthday boy?!
Oliver: Fine! It's awesome. Even the weather is good!
Alfie: So why are you in Switzerland? I thought your mum was taking you to the Italian lakes …
Oliver: When we landed at the airport, the day before yesterday, the friend of hers who's looking after us suggested a few days in the mountains, here in Switzerland. He's showing us the different regions and teaching us about the food before visiting Como and Milan. He's a brilliant chef, by the way.
Daisy: So what's your schedule?
Oliver: Well, the plan is four days here in Switzerland – this is the third day – and then four days in Italy.
Daisy: Ah, OK. And is the internet connection good?
Oliver: This is Switzerland, sis; everything is good! The Swiss seem incredibly organised and the technology here is first class. The only problem is we'll be moving around a lot – a different place every day. But I'll try to connect from the hotel every evening.
Alfie: Anyway, tell us stuff! Have you had any birthday presents? Are you having fun?
Oliver: Presents – yes, my sister there hid a little parcel in my suitcase, so when I was unpacking the case I had a really cool surprise.
Alfie: And have you opened the parcel? What was in it?
Oliver: A special cheese knife! I'm glad you didn't put it in the bag I took as hand luggage, Daisy!
Daisy: I'm not totally stupid ...
Oliver: Anyway, it's the perfect present for Switzerland. The cheese here is amazing! Oh, and I've learned to make Raclette, one of the most popular cheese dishes. We can try it when I get home.
Daisy: You're not bringing cheese home on the plane, are you?! The smell will be terrible …
Oliver: No, no, don't worry. But I'll bring some chocolate. The chocolate here is the best in the world, or so they say.
Alfie: No watches? The Swiss watch is an amazing piece of engineering ...
Oliver: Mmm, agreeing but the prices are amazing too ... haha. What else? Oh, the scenery is incredible! The Alps are so dramatic! They're like ... like the poster you've got in your room, Daisy.
Daisy: The poster of the Himalayas next to the window?...
Oliver: OK. Similar. The highest mountains in Europe are in the Alps. We were near Mont Blanc yesterday. That's the highest in Europe. Oh, and we saw some of the United Nations buildings in Geneva; they're very impressive. And the International Red Cross headquarters is in Geneva too. I really liked the building, it's very elegant and different – not a typical office building at all.
Alfie: So what about Italy? What are you going to see there?
Oliver: Well, we're starting in Como in the north – I think Mum is hoping to see George Clooney at the bus stop – he's got a house near Como – and there's a funicular railway, so we'll take the funicular to the top to a restaurant where the views are amazing. And I want to try the ice cream of course! And then Milan – the Duomo, the cathedral there, the clothes shops – hey Daisy – and Mum wants to take me to see The Last Supper …
Alfie: Oh, wow! That's awesome – I know that painting. Da Vinci. Really famous …
Oliver: That's the one – and she wants to go to the opera too. The Scala.
Daisy: You're going to the opera?!
Oliver: Well, I'd rather go to the football, but hey ... and of course, we're going to try the food – the pasta, the pizzas, the meat ...
Alfie: I envy you, mate!
Oliver: Hey, do you want to talk to Mum? She's here ...
Daisy: Yeah, sure. Hey, it's really good to hear you – I'm glad you're having a fantastic time. And happy birthday!!
We use the, the definite article, before a singular or plural noun. We use the to show people that they know (or they will soon know) what we are talking about.
Can you explain with examples?
Of course. The definite article, the, can refer backwards in a conversation or text to something already mentioned.
… my sister there hid a little parcel in my suitcase, so when I was unpacking the case I had a really cool surprise ...
It can also refer forwards to something which is going to be mentioned or explained.
Could you bring me the knife which you gave me?
The friend of hers who's looking after us ...
Does the always refer backwards or forwards?
No, it can also refer to shared knowledge or general knowledge. Both the listener and the speaker (or the writer and the reader) know what is being referred to.
But I'll try to connect from the hotel every evening.
I think Mum is hoping to see George Clooney at the bus stop.
OK, I understand those rules, but I’ve seen lists of different uses of the.
All right, I can give more specific examples, but they fit into the three areas I’ve given you. We use the when there is only one of something (in the world, the country, your town, the house, etc.), and we know what it is.
And is the internet connection good?
They're like ... like the poster you've got in your room, Daisy.
We use the with superlatives – again, we are talking about one thing.
The chocolate here is the best in the world.
With some adjectives which refer to one thing – for example first, last, next – we also use the.
… this is the third day ...
When referring forwards, we often use a relative clause.
That’s the friend who is looking after us.
Isn’t the used with musical instruments, like 'I play the guitar'?
Yes, we sometimes use the in fixed expressions for musical instruments, entertainment and transport.
He plays the piano brilliantly.
They’re going to the opera tonight. (also: the cinema, the football, the shops, etc.)
We took a taxi to the airport. (also: the bus stop, the station, etc.)
So even if there are three cinemas in my town, I would still say 'I went to the cinema last night'?
Yes, you would. We also sometimes use the to talk about groups of people or types of animals or things in general.
The unemployed are asking for more help from the government. (also: the poor, the old, the homeless, the deaf, etc.)
The wolf is the largest member of the dog family. (formal)
The Swiss watch is an amazing piece of engineering.
And we can use the with nationalities, like 'The Swiss make great chocolate'?
Yes, that’s right. You're good at this!
What about talking about things in general? Can I say 'The life is very expensive' or 'I love the sport'?
No, we don’t use the definite article to generalise about abstract things. You’d say: 'Life is very expensive' and 'I love sport'. If we’re generalising about things we usually use the plural form (for countable nouns) or singular (uncountable nouns).
She’s frightened of spiders. (= spiders in general)
Lasagne is delicious! (= lasagne in general)
Thanks for dinner. The lasagne was incredible! (= one particular lasagne)
But you used 'the wolf' earlier to talk about wolves in general.
Yes, but that was more formal language, for example what you would read in an encyclopaedia. We usually use no article to generalise.
What about geography words? Words for rivers and seas and things?
Ah, you mean proper nouns or names of things. Here are some categories where we use the, with examples:
Rivers: the Thames
Mountain ranges: the Alps
Oceans and seas: the Pacific / the Red Sea
Deserts: the Sahara
Islands (groups): the Bahamas
Countries if + political term / plural: the UK / the USA / the United Arab Emirates
Political institutions: the Government / the Monarchy
Newspapers (usually part of the title): The Times / The Guardian
Cinemas / theatres / hotels: the Odeon / the Holiday Inn
So we don't use the before lakes, forests, cities or towns?
No, not usually. And not usually before streets in towns.
Well, there’s more to the definite article than meets the eye!
Mm, that reminds me, more than meets the eye – there are a lot of idioms with the too. For another time!
Worksheets and downloads
Have you ever visited a different country? What did you see? What differences did you notice between there and home?