What Is A Definite Article? Definition & Examples

We use articles in lots of our sentences. We use articles to say that we are going to the bank, the store, or the beach. If you want to talk about the news or the weather, you’ll probably need an article. There are two types of articles, but definite articles are the ones that like to talk specifics. In English, only a single word has the honor to be referred to as the only definite article that we use. Can you figure out what the word is? The answer might be easier than you think. Before we solve the mystery, let’s learn more about what a definite article even is.

What is a definite article?

An article is a word that typically identifies a part of a speech as a noun (or noun equivalent) without describing it. A definite article is an article that indicates that a noun refers to a specific thing or to something that has been identified previously.

In English, there is only one definite article: the word the. To give an example of how we use the, look at the following sentences:

  • Luna heard wolves howling in the forest. The wolves sounded sad.

The second sentence uses the to refer to a specific pack of wolves whose identity was revealed in the previous sentence. By using the, we indicate that only this specific group of wolves sounded sad.

⚡️Quick tip

Articles, including the, act like adjectives in that they are used in front of nouns or words/phrases that act as nouns. Articles come before any other modifiers used before nouns:

Incorrect: He ate giant tasty the pizza.
Correct: He ate the giant tasty pizza.

Definite article examples

In English, the only definite article is the. The is one of the most commonly used words, so you will find it and use it in many sentences.

The used in a sentence

The following sentences show just some examples of how we use the to refer to specific things:

  • The sun dipped below the horizon.
  • The king laughed at the court jester.
  • Lisa’s painting won the contest.
  • The birds built a nest in the tree by the river.
  • The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.

What is the role of a definite article?

As a definite article, the word the is used to refer to specific things/groups or to particular things/groups that have been already identified. The is also used to refer to something that is unique, meaning only one of it exists.

Specific things

When we use the to refer to specific things, we typically need to identify them by providing more details so that a reader or listener knows what we are specifically referring to. For example:

  • Unclear: There are five houses on Main Street, but the house is Greg’s.
  • More clear: There are five houses on Main Street, but the red house is Greg’s.

In everyday speech in writing, it is important to first identify which specific thing/group you are referring to before using the. This can be done either directly or by providing enough context that the reader/listener can figure out what you are referring to.  For example:

  • Direct: I saw clowns at the circus. The clowns were funny. (The article the indicates that the clowns in the second sentence or the same clowns from the first one.)
  • Context: I went to the circus. The clowns were funny. (By using context, we know that the word the indicates that we are talking about the clowns that were specifically at the circus.)

Explore the facts about adjectives and see how to use them.

Unique things

We can also use the to refer to things or groups that are unique. For example:

  • The prime minister of Japan gave a speech. (Japan only has one prime minister.)
  • The Aztecs lived in Mexico. (There was only one historical group called “Aztecs.”)
  • She looked at the moon from her window. (The Earth only has one moon.)

Definite article exceptions & best practices

There are a few things to know about using the word the.

The can be replaced by a possessive word

The can be substituted out for a possessive word, such as their or Stephen’s. For example:

  • The guitar is in the room.
  • Becky’s guitar is in her room.

Typically, it is considered grammatically incorrect to use both the and a possessive word at the same time:

Incorrect: The his dog needs a bath.
Correct: His dog needs a bath.
Correct: The dog needs a bath.

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Exceptions when referring to unique things

Although we often use the to refer to unique things, there are many exceptions to this. Often, you need to learn these exceptions as you encounter them. Here are some examples of times when we usually do and do not use the:

  • Most countries: Pierre is from France. Saudi Arabia has a monarchy.
  • Countries whose names are plural or have a common noun: She is from the Philippines. The United Kingdom is part of Europe.
  • Groups identified by their origin: The Portuguese colonized many places.
  • Languages: I speak Portuguese.
  • Names of companies/department stores: We went to Wal-mart this morning.
  • Referring to specific department stores: We went to the Wal-mart down the street.
  • Specific years: The house was built in 1942.
  • Decades: He was born in the 1990s.
  • Mountain ranges, island chains, and oceans: They tried to cross the Himalayas. I always wanted to visit the Hawaiian islands. The Pacific Ocean is gigantic.
  • Single mountains, single islands, and lakes: The adventurer climbed Mt. Everest. They tried to form a colony on Roanoke Island. Lake Erie is located near Pennsylvania.

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What is subject-verb agreement and how do you ensure you always attain it? Find out here.

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