How to Use Articles in English: Advanced Uses of 'The'
In this post you will learn about advanced uses of articles in English. We will start with some basic stuff, but quickly move on to more advanced issues. Take your time and contact me if you have any questions. Enjoy!
What is an Article?
The words ‘a’ and ‘the’ basically mean ‘one’. For example, if there is one cat in your garden you can say, ‘There is a cat in my garden.’ (It would be wrong to say ‘There is cat in my garden’.) And if I said ‘Look at the cat in my garden!’ you would know that I am referring to one cat. (Again, it would be wrong to say ‘Look at cat in my garden.’)
We use articles when we are talking about one thing. This basically means that we don’t use articles with uncountable nouns or plurals; we only use articles with singular countable nouns. For example, the following sentences are wrong, as they should not contain ‘the’.
☓ My husband loves the science. (‘Science’ is uncountable.)
☓ Frogs eat the insects. (‘Insects’ is plural)
What is the Difference Between ‘A’ and ‘The’?
We use ‘a’ when it is not clear to the reader/listener exactly which thing we are talking about; we use ‘the’ when it is clear to the reader/listener exactly which thing we are talking about.
a. I’m going to a restaurant in Soho tonight.
b. I’m going to the restaurant in Soho tonight.
Soho is an area in central London with many restaurants. If I say sentence a it means I don’t think the listener knows exactly which restaurant I am going to. However, if I say sentence b it means that I think the listener does know exactly which restaurant I mean, perhaps because we have talked about this restaurant before, or been there together in the past.
a. Let’s meet at a cafe in Trafalgar Square.
b. Let’s meet at the Starbucks in Trafalgar Square.
Trafalgar Square is a place in central London where there are many cafes. If I say sentence a it is unclear to the listener exactly which cafe I mean. (In this case I probably don’t know exactly which cafe either.) However, if I say sentence b it is clear to the listener exactly which cafe I mean, as there is only one Starbucks in Trafalgar Square.
a. There is a cat in my garden.
b. Look at the cat in my garden!
In sentence a I say ‘a cat’ because there are millions of cats in the world and the listener does not know which one is in my garden. In sentence b I use 'the cat' because the listener knows exactly which cat I want him to look at: the one in my garden.
Using ‘The’ with Plural and Uncountable Nouns
Earlier you learned that articles are not used with plural or uncountable nouns. However, ‘the’ can be used with plural and uncountable nouns if you are referring to one group/kind/example etc.
a. The wine glasses on that shelf were a wedding gift.
b. Knives and forks go in that drawer.
In sentence a we must use ‘the’. Although ‘wine glasses’ is plural we are talking about one specific set of wine glasses. Only those exact wine glasses were a wedding gift. In sentence b we are talking about knives and forks in general, so we don’t need ‘the’. Essentially we are saying ‘that is the cutlery drawer.’
a. History is an interesting subject.
b. The history of China is an interesting subject.
Sentence a does not need ‘the’ as ‘history’ is uncountable. In sentence b we use ‘the’ because we are talking about one kind of history: the history of China.
a. ☓ The black cats are unlucky.
b. ✓ Black cats are unlucky.
You might think sentence a is correct because we are talking about one kind of cat: black cats. However, we are talking generally about all black cats, so we should not use ‘the’.
a. ✓ People in Asia mostly have dark hair.
b. ✓ The people in Asia mostly have dark hair.
In this case both ways are acceptable. Technically 'the people in Asia' means the exact people in Asia right now, while 'people in Asia' means the people in Asia at any given time. However, as Asia is such a large place, for all intents and purposes the two sentences mean the same thing.
a. The ruling was a victory for workers.
b. The ruling was a victory for the workers.
Both sentences are grammatically correct, but they mean different things. Sentence a seems to be about general employment law, while sentence b seems to be about a dispute between the workers and management of one particular company.
‘The Toilet’, ‘The Supermarket’, ‘The Pub’ etc.
a. He went to a toilet behind a tree.
b. He went to the toilet behind a tree.
To a native English speaker sentence a sounds quite strange. We imagine a toilet situated behind a tree. With sentence b we imagine something quite ordinary: a man urinating behind a tree. The focus is on the activity, not the place. In fact, you don’t need a toilet in order to go to the toilet!
a. We’re going to a pub but we haven’t decided which one.
b. We’re going to the pub but we haven’t decided which one.
You might think that sentence b is wrong, but actually both sentences are correct. The phrase ‘going to the pub’ really means ‘going out to drink alcohol’. As in example 1, the focus is on the activity rather than the place.
a. I need to go to a supermarket.
b. I need to go to the supermarket.
Although both sentences are grammatically correct, sentence b is more common. Again, the phrase ‘go to the supermarket’ emphasises the activity: buying groceries. By contrast, in sentence a the focus is on the supermarket itself. If you told a native English speaker that you were going to a supermarket, he or she would probably ask you why, as you seem to have an intention other than simply buying groceries.
This kind of construction is used in many cases. For example, ‘going to the doctor’, ‘going to the cinema’, ‘going to the park’. In every case it is the activity you will do at the place, rather than the place itself, that is the focus of attention. The activities in question are commonplace and familiar to everyone.
‘Going to School’, ‘Going to Church’ etc.
In all the above sentences there is a singular countable noun: ‘toilet’, ‘supermarket’, ‘park’ etc. A similar construction can be formed using uncountable forms of nouns that are usually countable. This construction does not use ‘the’.
a. I went to a school in London.
b. I went to school in London.
In sentence a the focus is on the place: the school itself. In sentence b the focus is on the activity. However, unlike in the previous examples, ‘the’ is not used. This is because, in this context, ‘school’ is uncountable; it is an approximate synonym of ‘education’. So, if you say ‘I went to a school in London’ you must be talking about one school, but if you say ‘I went to school in London’ you could be talking about several schools. You are in effect saying 'I was educated in London.'
a. I went to a church today.
b. I went to church today.
As in example 1, in sentence a the focus is on the place, while in sentence b the focus is on the activity. Again, in sentence b ‘church’ is uncountable; it is an approximate synonym for ‘worship’. If someone says sentence a, that’s probably because they visited a church for reasons other than to worship, such as to look at the windows. In contrast, if someone says sentence b then they probably participated in a religious ritual.
a. I’m going to the football today.
b. I’m going to football today.
This example is slightly different to the others. In sentence a ‘the football’ means ‘a football match’. If someone says sentence a then he or she intends to go to a football ground and watch a game. In sentence b ‘football’ is uncountable and refers to football training. If someone says sentence b then he or she is going to train, probably as part of an amateur team. 'The football' is an event; 'football' is an activity.
Articles and Names
As you have learned, articles are used with singular countable nouns. Names are not countable nouns, so they do not require articles. For example, it would be wrong say 'I love the Paris' as 'Paris' is the name of the city. However, certain names do include articles.
a. ☓ I live in UK.
b. ✓ I live in the UK.
Although this is the name of a country, it is necessary to use 'the'. This is because 'kingdom' is a singular countable noun.
a. ☓ My friend lives in USA.
b. ✓ My friend lives in the USA.
Although 'states' is plural we are talking about one specific group of states: the united states of America.
a. ✓ Have you been to The Natural History Museum?
b. ✓ Have you been to a natural history museum?
In both sentences articles are required because 'museum' is a singular countable noun. The difference is that sentence a refers to a famous museum in London called 'The Natural History Museum', while Sentence b refers to any museum of natural history.
a. ✓ Robin Hood lived in Sherwood Forest.
b. ✓ I live near Clapton Pond.
Sherwood Forest is a forest in England where Robin Hood is supposed to have lived. Clapton Pond is an area in London. Although the words 'forest' and 'pond' are both singular countable nouns, 'Sherwood' and 'Clapton' are names of places, not descriptive terms like 'united' and 'natural history', so we don't use 'the'.
a. ✓ I work on Kings Road.
b. ☓ I work on The Kings Road.
Again, although 'road' is a singular countable noun, 'Kings' is not a descriptive term like 'united' or 'natural history', so 'the' is not used. 'The Kings Road' would sound a bit strange, as if the road belongs to the king, when in fact 'Kings' is just a name, not a description of the road's owner. Nevertheless, you do sometimes hear native English speakers say 'The Kings Road'.
Articles and Official Titles
a. Diana, Princess of Wales, died in 1997.
b. Diana, the Princess of Wales, died in 1997.
Both these sentences are correct. Although 'princess' is a singular countable noun, we don't use an article in sentence a because 'Princess of Wales' is an official title. Grammatically speaking, in sentence a the subject is 'Diana, Princess of Wales'. In sentence b the subject is 'Diana', while 'the princess of Wales' is simply a description of who she was.
The same construction can be used to refer to other titles.
a. Tony is manager of HR.
b. Tony is the manager of HR.
Again both sentences are correct, and they convey essentially the same information. Sentence a tells us Tony's official job title: manager of HR. Sentence b simply tells us what Tony's job is.
Articles and 'Job Descriptions'
In sentences with the following sentence structure, which is common in newspapers, an article is not required.
(Note that 'job description' is meant in the broadest sense. This construction works with any description of a person's general occupation or lifestyle. Even terms like 'drug addict' can be used in this way.)
a. Richard Branson, entrepreneur, is known for his publicity stunts.
b. Richard Branson, the/an entrepreneur, is known for his publicity stunts.
Both of these sentences are grammatically correct. In sentence b 'the' is more likely than 'an' because Richard Branson is famous for being an entrepreneur.
a. Sarah, mother of two, was robbed at knifepoint.
b. Mother of two, Sarah, was robbed at knife point.
Both word-orders are correct.
a. ✓ Tony is manager of HR.
b. ☓ Richard Branson is entrepreneur.
Terms such as 'entrepreneur' and 'mother of two' are not official titles, so they cannot always be used in the same way as terms such as 'manager of HR' and 'Princess of Wales'.
'The Lion is King of the Jungle'
Groups of things can sometimes be referred to using 'the' + the singular noun.
a. The gorilla is my favourite animal.
b. Gorillas are my favourite animal.
These two sentences are both grammatically correct, and mean the same thing. 'The gorilla' does not refer to one individual gorilla; it refers to the concept of a gorilla.
a. Jungles are full of wildlife.
b. The jungle is full of wildlife.
Here again both sentences are correct. 'The jungle' basically means 'typical jungles'. This construction is common when talking about animals and plants. Using 'The gorilla' and 'the jungle' conveys respect for gorillas and jungles; it makes them sound important.
a. ✓ Asians usually have dark hair.
b. ☓ The Asian usually has dark hair.
You should never use this construction to talk about groups of people, as it can sound racist. People should be treated as individuals, never conceptualised.
The charity 'Amnesty International' makes clever use of this construction in their slogan:
Protect the Human
By using 'the human' instead of 'humans' Amnesty International draws attention to the fact that people are vulnerable living creatures. 'Protect the Human' reminds us of slogans such as 'Protect the Tiger', 'Protect the Panda' etc.
Articles are one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar for learners. Ultimately you have to get a ‘feel’ for their use. You also have to accept that in certain cases convention is more important than grammar. As always, my advice is to listen carefully to how natives speak, and copy them.
I have covered a lot in this post, but it will help you to remember one thing: ‘a’ and ‘the’ mean one.
Get in touch now for one-to-one help with your English.
Thanks for reading,
August 4, 2017
Mi vida antes del Covid- 19 (IMPERFECTO) A-2
August 7, 2020
August 7, 2020
The Origins of popular English Idioms
Jen Mc Monagle
August 7, 2020