“The” is the only definite article in English and one of the most commonly used words in the English language.
“The” can be used with both singular and plural nouns, with nouns of any gender, and with nouns that start with any letter. This is different from many other languages which have different articles for different genders and/or numbers.
- the boy / the boys;
- the girl / the girls;
- the day / the days
The definite article the is used when the referent of the noun phrase is assumed to be unique or known from the context.
For example, in the sentence:
- The boy with glasses was looking at the moon. (it is assumed that in the context
the reference can only be to one boy and one moon.)
The word “the” is also used with comparatives.
For example, in phrases like:
- the sooner the better
- we were all the happier for it.
(this form of the definite article has a somewhat different etymology from other uses of the definite article).
The definite article is not used:
- with generic nouns (plural or uncountable): cars have accelerators, happiness is contagious referring to cars in general and happiness in general (compare the happiness I felt yesterday – specifying particular happiness);
- with many proper names: John, France, London, etc.
An area in which the use or non-use of the is sometimes problematic is with geographic names.
- Names of rivers, seas, mountain ranges, deserts, island groups and the like are generally used with the definite article (the Rhine, the North Sea, the Alps, the Sahara, the Hebrides).
- Names of continents, islands, countries, regions, administrative units,cities and towns mostly do not take the article (Europe, Skye, Germany, Scandinavia, Yorkshire, Madrid).
However, there are certain exceptions:
- Countries and regions whose names are modified common nouns, or are derived from island groups, take the article: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, the Middle East, the Philippines, the Seychelles. Note also the Netherlands.
- Certain countries whose names derive from mountain ranges, rivers, deserts, etc. are sometimes used with an article (the Lebanon, the Sudan), but this usage is declining, although the Gambia is the recommended name of that country. Since the independence of Ukraine (formerly sometimes called the Ukraine), most style guides have advised dropping the article (in some other languages there is a similar issue involving prepositions). Use of the Argentine for Argentina is now old-fashioned.
- Some names include an article for historical reasons, such as The Bronx, or to reproduce the native name (The Hague).
- Names beginning with a common noun followed by of take the article, as in the Isle of Wight (compare Christmas Island). The same applies to names of institutions: Cambridge University, but the University of Cambridge.