The definite article

The definite article


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.


Sophie has taken Oliver on a special trip for his 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!


Total votes: 945


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Have you every visited a different country? What did you see? What differences did you notice between there and home?


Nargizka1995's picture

Hi, I`m from Kyzgyzstan. I was in Istanbul six mounth ago, it was amazing time in this country, becouse Istanbul has a lot of interesting sights, such as Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and more. and how there are preparing tasty , I miss Istanbul))) Istanbul is very different from my hometown , he is very mysterious and contrast.

32 users have voted.
Alexander111's picture

Hi, I'm from Taiwan, the country next to China. I have been to United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Czech. The history in Europe is so cool, so much castle and tall buildings, Big Ben, Eiffel Tower, Brandonburger Tor, Colosseum etc. I love it. My country don't have so much History, Taiwan only have history for 400 years. I'm so envy.

34 users have voted.
iva10's picture

My dream is when am old enoygh and when my book is publised to go to London.I want to live there and every morning when i wake up i want to tell myself:I'm realy in London!

27 users have voted.
Nerminka's picture

I have never visited to a different country buy different rgion, I saw many differences but our region is beautiful than other regions

136 users have voted.
ATATURK's picture

I've never been abroad but I am going to go to Bristol and London in july. I will stay in an university with my classmates during 3 weeks. We will visit the landmarks and talk with the Britishs for improveing our pronunciation ;)

129 users have voted.
ATATURK's picture

Maybe, definite article is one of the most important subject in English. If you don't know a,an,the very well you'll fail, i think. British Council is one of the best way to learn this subject. Videos, notes, exercises are kind of a good practise. Good luck for all of us :)

120 users have voted.
ATATURK's picture


I'm from Turkey and I live in Ankara. Ankara is the capital city of Turkey, you know :D It is a must see place and I am glad to living here. You should visit Ankara and Istanbul. We are hospitable people. Where are you from ?

133 users have voted.
iva10's picture

Hi,ATATURK!I'm from Montenegro and i live in the main city -capital Podgorica.I wanted to ask you can you describe Instanbul?And one more question sorry if am bodering you but how old are you?

29 users have voted.
aygul's picture

I live in İstanbul. I love İstanbul:) It is very big and active city.It has a lot of historical places, grand bazaar, Ayasofya, Topkapı palace...

20 users have voted.
readingskills's picture

Unfortunately,i have'nt visited any country but i've visited my country a lot of places , she have many things,like secenary ,the rivers , the mountains.........etc............

128 users have voted.