What is ‘the’ and how should we use it? If you are an experienced English language student you know this, but you might not know naturally when to use ‘the’ in all cases.

I. ‘The” for Special And Specifically Known Things And People
“The’ defines things and people–so it is called the definite article”, giving us a definite awareness of which one we are concerned about. ‘The’ is used like other words which identify known things and people*–and to show that they are specific things or special things or people–and not mere concepts! Look:

‘Pencil’ is just a word naming a tool that uses graphite or lead to make marks.
‘A pencil’ is not a word; it’s “a real pencil”.
‘The pencil’ is one that the listener knows about, because it was spoken about earlier–or it is one that the listener could easily be made aware of as special.

Example Set 1.
the plane on the tarmac
the man over there
the table by the window
the girl I talked about earlier

Sample Conversation A:
Dave: Where’s the pencil I was using?
Marcus: It’ sunder the table. It fell down when you sneezed.

Dave shouldn’t simply say ‘a pencil’. because that would make ‘his pencil’ an unspecified pencil. Similarly, he shouldn’t say merely ‘pencil’ with no modifying word (like ‘the’) in front of it, because that would mean the concept of ‘pencil’, not an actual pencil.

II. ‘The’ for General Things, Concepts & Titles of Entities or People
We use ‘the’ to identity known devices, positions, locations people and entities — because there is one of them, only one of them nearby or because they are singularly special:

Example Set 2.
The Theory of Relativity (There is only 1.)
the automobile (Not 1 auto, not all autos, the auto in general as a thing in the world)
the pencil (Not 1 pencil, not all pencils, the pencil in general as a thing in the world)
the copy machine (in the room or office or in the room or office talked about)
the president
(or ‘President Obama’, [No ‘the’ with a name, unless referring to one of two or more people with the same name; ask me about this in class.])
the right side of the building
(concerning the side of the building being discussed)
the city, the park, the front yard
(nearby or near the location being talked about)
the police station, the train station, the government
(nearby or in the area spoken about)

Sample Conversation B:
Marcus: Did you know ‘the pencil’ refers to the device that changed writing and drawing, just as the Theory of Relativity changed physics and other areas of science?
Dave: Sure, it’s like the automobile, airplane and computer which changed transportation and computing in the time of horse & carriage. Before the pencil, was invented, people wrote and drew by dipping a quill, or a plucked feather, into ink. I mean of course we —
Marcus: The computer wasn’t invented in the time of horse and buggy!
Mando: Actually, if you don’t mind my saying—there were mechanical computers in the 1700s–running on levers, rods and punch cards….
Dave: That’s ridiculous. Where do you learn this crap?
Mando: They hide this information from you, Dave, in a thing called books--and on the internet–where they know you won’t find it.
Marcus: Haa Haaaaa! Nice one!

There is more to know about ‘the’ and when to use it–as well as when not to use it; you can ask me about that in class; or just master these ideas, first–as they are the important basics; when the exceptions arise, that makes for a great learning moment. As you may have noticed, because of that truth of more effective memory in question-and-answer learning, and because it allows for incremental learning in stead of voluminous learning, which I think it bores a student and bogs down the mind), I prefer to teach concepts on a “need-to-know” basis. So–basics first, exceptions later.

Thank you for reading.

Copyright Carl Atteniese 2022 / All rights reserved.
*To this writer, “animals” are people–who have a conscious experience, are separate from and interact with other conscious beings and so feel pain, happiness, fear and affection. If this were not true, people would not have pets.

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Carl Atteniese

Carl Atteniese is a writer, artist, voice actor and ESL tutor from New York in Tokyo.

One thought on “‘The’”

  1. After Writing this, I looked up ‘the’. This is what the Free Dictionary says about using it:

    a. Used before singular or plural nouns and noun phrases that denote particular, specified persons or things: the baby; the dress I wore.
    b. Used before a noun, and generally stressed, to emphasize one of a group or type as the most outstanding or prominent: considered Wicker Park to be the neighborhood to live in these days.
    c. Used to indicate uniqueness: the Prince of Wales; the moon.
    d. Used before nouns that designate natural phenomena or points of the compass: the weather; a wind from the south.
    e. Used as the equivalent of a possessive adjective before names of some parts of the body: grab him by the neck; an infection of the hand.
    f. Used before a noun specifying a field of endeavor: the law; the film industry; the stage.
    g. Used before a proper name, as of a monument or ship: the Alamo; the Titanic.
    h. Used before the plural form of a numeral denoting a specific decade of a century or of a lifespan: rural life in the Thirties.
    2. Used before a singular noun indicating that the noun is generic: The loggerhead turtle is an endangered species.
    a. Used before an adjective extending it to signify a class and giving it the function of a noun: the rich; the dead; the homeless.
    b. Used before an absolute adjective: the best we can offer.
    4. Used before a present participle, signifying the action in the abstract: the weaving of rugs.
    5. Used before a noun with the force of per: cherries at $1.50 the box. (we don’t say this in America as far as my experience is concerned.)


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