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Grammar: the article in English

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the rules of the definite article.


I'm an English teacher and I would like to get information about the different uses of the definite article THE. I can only find short and very common examples of uses, and I'm looking forward to getting a more complete explanation in addition to some examples.

Mery Garcia


Mery, there are dozens of 'rules' regarding the use of the definite article, but only one 'reason'. Until learners understand the reason, then there doesn’t seem to be much point in giving them the rules. Moreover, once learners understand the reason, most of the rules take care of themselves. 

The reason we use the definite article is simplicity itself: THE identifies shared knowledge. Here is how Michael Halliday puts it:

"THE means the (noun) in question is identifiable; but this will not tell you how to identify it – the information is somewhere around, where you can recover it. So whereas this train means 'you know which train: - the one near me', and my train means 'you know which train: - the one I own', the train means simply 'you know which train'."

(From An Introduction to Functional Grammar)

“The information is somewhere around where you can recover it.” What does he mean by 'somewhere around'? There are two places that information can be 'somewhere around': in the shared world of the speakers (or reader and writer), i.e. the context; or in the shared world of the immediate text , i.e. the co-text. 

Let’s look at shared context knowledge first. When I say to my partner: “Have you seen the tin opener?” my partner understands that I mean the tin opener that is part of our shared world – in this case, our tin opener. Likewise, the referent of the in a post-it note in the office is in the shared world of reader and writer: “Can you switch off the lights when you leave?”

Shared world information can consist of things in the immediate context, like “the tin opener” or “the lights”, or things in the local context, like “the post office”, or things in the national or global or universal context, like “the Queen” or “the United Nations” or “the moon”. The reason for using the is always the same: the information that tells us which tin opener, or post office or queen or moon is “somewhere around” us. 'The' is a way of “pointing” to that thing. 

We can also use 'the' to point to things that are not in the real world but that are identified somewhere else in the text (the co-text). When I read in a book: “The princess was unhappy…” I know that the princess has been identified previously, or will be identified presently – the information is somewhere around in the text. “Somewhere round” in a text means either back in the text, or forward in the text. So, when we read the beginning of this story, we can identify the referent of the first the by going back in the text («), and the referent of the second 'the' by going forward in the text (»):

They speak of a prince who had an only son. « The boy grew up and became old enough to need a wife. His father advised him: “My son, when you marry choose the girl » who says, ‘You and I must face fortune together!’ ….

This suggests that a useful awareness-raising exercise is to ask students to identify the referents of each instance of the in a text. The referent can be either (a) back in the text or (b) forward in the text, or it can be (c) outside the text, in the shared context (whether the immediate context, or in the knowledge of the world that the speakers share). Try doing it with this joke:

An American, a Frenchman and an Australian were sitting in a bar on (1) the top of a building overlooking Sydney Harbour.
"Do you know why America is (2) the wealthiest country in (3) the world?" asked (4) the American. "It’s because we build big and we build fast. We put up (5) the Empire State Building in six weeks." 
"Six weeks, mon dieu, so long!" snapped (6) the Frenchman. (7) "The Eiffel Tower we put up in one month exactement." "And you" he continued, turning to (8) the Australian, "what has Australia done to match that?"

"Ah, nothing, mate. Not that I know of."
(9) The American pointed to (10) the Harbour Bridge. "What about that?" he asked.
(11) The Australian looked over his shoulder. "Dunno, mate. Wasn’t there yesterday."

(from The Penguin Book of Australian Jokes)

Answers:

  1. forward (“…of a building”)
  2. forward (“wealthiest…in the world”)
  3. outside (shared knowledge of the world)
  4. back (“an American”)
  5. outside (shared knowledge of the world)
  6. back (“a Frenchman”)
  7. outside (shared knowledge of the world
  8. back (“an Australian”)
  9. back (“an American”)
  10. outside (shared context)
  11. back (“an Australian”)  

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