October 21, 2009
MEGAN: Howdy Ags, and welcome back to Write Right, the student podcast of the Texas A&M University Writing Center. This episode will continue our discussion of English articles–knowing which articles are appropriate, and when. In the last episode, we looked at the indefinite articles ‘a’ and ‘an,’ so today, we’ll focus on the definite article ‘the.’
The definite article is used when a noun is specific to both the speaker and the hearer, or the writer and the reader. Unlike indefinite articles, ‘the’ may precede both singular and plural nouns. Consider the statement, “I have the book (or I have the books) you asked for.” In this case, the speaker has a specific book, and the hearer has asked for it. ‘The’ is used because they are talking about the same book. Notice how the sentence could change to “I have a book you asked for,” if the hearer has asked for more than one book, and thus does not know which one the speaker is about to give him. In both of these sentences, either ‘a’ or ‘the’ can be used and the sentences will still be grammatically correct. Many times, the ideal use of the definite article depends on what you want to say. However, there are still general guidelines we can follow:
The Writing Center at Rensselaer University points out several contextual and grammatical structures that trigger the use of the definite article:
If the noun has already been mentioned in the conversation, it is definite by context. If you say “John found a dog, but later the dog ran away,” you use ‘the’ at the second mention of the dog. We know you’re talking about the dog previously mentioned.
If superlative or ranking adjectives modify the noun, they are emphasizing a specific noun. For example, you say “the largest piece of fruit” “the second half of the game” and “the smaller slice of the two.”
Other modifying words and phrases may have the same function as well, such as “the girl who lives next door,” and “the building that has five stories.” However, these phrases will not always use the definite article. You could be talking about any building that has five stories. Once again, the correct article depends on whether or not the speaker is communicating something specific.
Nouns also use the definite article if they are describing a unique person, place, or thing, such as in the sentence, “The earth revolves around the sun.” ‘Earth’ and ‘sun’ are specific by meaning.
In all these examples, the main thing to be sure of is that the speaker and hearer have the same situation or context in mind. While knowing when to use the definite article can be confusing, following these guidelines and looking into additional resources will help you work through all the rules and exceptions. For example, some noun categories, such as languages, nationalities, sports, and academic subjects, don’t use articles at all. You can refer to our website, at writingcenter.tamu.edu, for links to more comprehensive explanations and examples of the correct use of articles. Thanks for tuning in to the last two episodes, and we’ll see you next time, on Write Right.