Definite Article

What Is the Definite Article?

The definite article is the word "the." It is used before a noun to define it as something specific (e.g., something previously mentioned or known, something unique, or something being identified by the speaker).
  • I'm the pirate.
  • (This means a specific pirate, i.e., the one previously discussed.)
  • Can we go to the park?
  • (The park is specific. It is known to the speaker and the listener.)
The definite article contrasts with the indefinite article ("a" or "an"), which defines something as unspecific (e.g., something generic or something mentioned for the first time).
  • I'm a pirate.
  • (This means an unspecified pirate, i.e., not one previously discussed.)
  • Can we go to a park?
  • (The park is unspecific. The speaker doesn't care which one.)

Table of Contents

  • More about the Definite Article
  • Video Lesson
  • Why Definite Articles Are Important
  • Test Time!
definite article

More about the Definite Article

Articles are classified as determiners. A determiner sits before a noun to indicate quantity, possession, specificity, or definiteness.

There are just two types of article in English: Here's an example with one of each:
  • I have found a solution to the problem.
  • (The solution is not yet known by the listener. The problem is known to the speaker and the listener.)
Of interest, "the" is the most commonly used word in English. In many Slavic languages (e.g., Russian, Serbo-Croat), the word "the" doesn't exist at all. That's right. The Russians don't have a word for "the" (or "a" for that matter)!

Video Lesson

Here is a video summarizing this lesson on the definite article. video lesson

Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

Why Definite Articles Are Important

There are two commonly discussed issues related to definite articles.

(Issue 1) Writing a job title or an office name with a capital letter.

A job title (e.g., "president," "judge," "director") or the name of office ("parliament," "court," "accounts section") is given a capital letter when it refers to a specific person or office (i.e., when it's a proper noun). So, when the definite article (i.e., "the") appears before such a title or name, there's a pretty good chance you'll need a capital letter.

Here's the guidance: If the job title or office name is being used for its dictionary definition (i.e., as a common noun), then don't use a capital letter. However, if the job title or office name nails it down to one specific person or office (i.e., it is used as a proper noun), then use a capital letter.
  • The King was a king among kings. correct tick
  • (Here, "The King" specifies an individual, but "king" and "kings" do not. They are just the dictionary definitions of the word king. In other words, the first one is a proper noun, but the other two are common nouns.)
  • She works in one of the finance offices, in the Accounts Section, I think. correct tick
  • (The term "finance offices" is a common noun, but "Accounts Section" is a proper noun.)

(Issue 2) Capitalizing the "The" that starts a name (e.g., The Beatles).

Some names (particularly band names) start with "The" (e.g., "The Beatles," "The Rolling Stones," "The Sex Pistols"). When such names appear in running text, you have a choice whether to write "The" (with a capital letter) or "the." As there is no consensus among the leading style guides on this point, you can go with your preference. Remember that we are talking about a name in running text. In a formal list of names or a reference, you'd have to use "The."

It is useful to think of an opening "The" as being only loosely bound to its name because there will be times when you ought to drop it.
  • Did you download the Bastille album?
  • (The group is called "Bastille.")
  • Did you download the The Clash album?
  • (The group is called "The Clash." Logically, this would be correct, but no one would write or say it because it's far too unwieldy.)
  • Did you download the Clash album?
  • (This is the most acceptable version, but we've lost the "The.")
It is worth bearing in mind that this issue could affect you with foreign names with an opening "The".
  • Gina Vitale: It's called "The La Trattoria".
    Michael Felgate: "The La Trattoria" means The The Trattoria.
    Gina Vitale: I know.
  • (An extract from the 1999 Hugh Grant film Mickey Blue Eyes)
With a bit more clarity of thought, the owner of "The La Trattoria" would probably have registered it as "La Trattoria".
  • Does it disturb anyone else that "The Los Angeles Angels" baseball team translates directly as "The The Angels Angels"? (Unknown)

Key Points

author logo

This page was written by Craig Shrives.