Special Cases in the Use of the Definite Article

Written by Martine Johnston, International Student Centre

To decide if you should use the word the, ask yourself these three questions:

    1. Is the noun indefinite (unspecified) or definite (specific)?

      The general rule states that the first mention of a noun is indefinite and all subsequent references to this noun are definite and take the.

      A man is walking down a road. There is a dog with the man.

      The second mention may be a synonym:

      Combine butter, sugar and eggs. Add flour to the mixture.

      First (indefinite) mention requires a or an for a singular count noun, no article for a plural or non-count noun. Second mention makes the correct for both count and non-count nouns:

      A growing plant must have water and minerals. The plant must also have sunlight. The minerals must include nitrates and the water must not be saline.

      Three special groups of nouns are considered definite in reference even if they have not been mentioned in the preceding sentence or clause.

      1. The first group consists of nouns which refer to shared knowledge of the situation or context. For example, in Canada you can say

        The Prime Minister will arrive tomorrow

        because there is only one Prime Minister in Canada, and so it is clear to whom you are referring. Similarly, if there is only one hospital in the town, you can say

        He’s been working in the hospital for two years.

        But you couldn’t say this in Toronto, where there are many hospitals. You would have to name the particular hospital in your first reference to it:

        He’s been working at Toronto General Hospital for two years. He says the hospital is in a financial mess.

      2. The second group consists of nouns referring to unique objects:

        e.g., the sun/the earth/the Pope/the sky/the equator

      3. Superlative adjectives and unique adjectives form the third group. Because there can be only one of these (only one of a series can be the tallest or the best or the first), they take the definite article:

        Mexico City is the most populous city in the world.

        I enjoyed the first part, but I was disappointed at the end.

        She is the principal researcher.

    2. Is the noun modified?

      1. Premodification: If the noun is preceded by one of the following–


        do not use the definite article.

        e.g., the red books/some red books/no red book/his red books/each red book

      2. Postmodification: if the noun is followed by a dependent clause (who/which/that) or a prepositional phrase (of/in/to…), it is made definite and takes the definite article. The man who lives next door is Chinese.

        We take the regular collection of garbage for granted.

        The journey to Vancouver take three days by train.

        No one expected the results that were found.

        EXCEPTION: collective nouns take the indefinite article:

        a box of matches/a deck of cards/a bar of soap/a herd of cows.

    3. Is the noun generic?

      Generic reference is used when one refers to a whole group or class, to generalize about all possible members of a group. There are five patterns one can use:

      1. no article PLUS plural count noun:

        It’s astonishing what gymnasts can do.

      2. no article PLUS noncount noun:

        Love can cause a lot of suffering.

      3. indefinite article PLUS singular count noun:

        It’s astonishing what a gymnast can do.

        [This pattern cannot be used to discuss the location or existence of something/someone. You cannot say A lion lives in Africa. You must use pattern (a) or (d)].

      4. definite article PLUS singular count noun:

        It’s astonishing what the gymnast can do.

      5. definite article PLUS plural nationality noun:

        The Chinese have an ancient culture.

Pattern (a) is most common in colloquial English; pattern (d) is frequently used in academic writing.

Special Uses of Articles

    1. Media and communications:

      Use a noun PLUS definite article to refer to systems of communication and the mass media, in contrast to the actual machine of communications. The telephone is the system of communication; a telephone is the actual physical machine.

      The newspapers are all in agreement on the latest financial disaster.

      [exception: television usually has no article: Did you see him onv television?]

    2. Means of transportation:

      Use the definite article to refer to the whole transport system, rather than to an individual vehicle:

      How long does it take on the bus?

      The subway is quicker.

      [if you use the construction “by PLUS means of transport,” there is no article: I go by subway].

    3. Forms of entertainment:

      To refer to a form of entertainment in general, use the definite article:

      I enjoy seeing the ballet.

      To refer to a particular event, use the indefinite article:

      I saw a good movie last night.

    4. Place/object of activity nouns:

      Certain nouns refer to either a place/object or to an activity. When they refer to an activity, do not use the definite article:

      activity object
      I go to bed at 11 o’clock. Don’t jump on the bed.
      She went to school for many years. The school was too small.
      Many families eat dinner together. The dinner was delicious.
      I shower before breakfast. The breakfast was delicious.
      They are at church. The church is very old.
      She is in class. The class is in Room 102.
    5. Directions:

      Nouns indicating direction do not take the definite article:

      Go two blocks south and turn left.

      [exception: nouns indicating political divisions take the definite article: She is on the left of the party.]

    6. Periods of time:

Names of decades, centuries and historic periods take the definite article, as they are a form of unique reference:

The 1960s were a time of student rebellion.