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When do I use The?

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Definite article v. Zero article.

This is one of the most common questions students ask me and also one of the questions I find most difficult to answer. Native speakers of any language find there are some rules that they just know, without knowing why. However, to help you guys out, here are some rules for when we do use it and when we don’t. After the explanation there is a mini test to check your understanding. Good luck!

We use the when:

• It is followed by a superlative. E.g. ‘the best, the longest, the tallest, the most boring...’
• When we have referred to something before. E.g. ‘I saw a lion at the zoo the other day. The lion looked very hungry’.
• When it is obvious which thing we are talking about. E.g. ‘Please lock the door when you leave’.
• When we are talking about a country which includes the word ‘Kingdom’ or ‘States’. E.g. ‘I live in the United Kingdom’.

We don’t use the when:
• Talking about most countries. E.g. ‘I live in Germany’.
• We are talking about an uncountable noun or plural nouns in a general manner. E.g. ‘I really love rice’.
• We are talking about things in a general manner. E.g. ‘Girls are usually more mature than boys’.
• We are talking about meals. E.g. ‘I had Chinese food for dinner’.

Note: We can use the with uncountable or plural nouns if it is because it is obvious exactly what we are talking about. E.g. ‘Please can you put the plates on the table’.

Test: In the following sentences write either the or leave the gap blank using X.

Lesson by Caroline
Link: Relative Clauses - who, whose, where, which

  • 1. Please will you pass me ___ potatoes?

  • 2. My friend lives in ___ France, so I haven’t seen her in ages.

  • 3. I really love ___ bats. I know it sounds strange, but they are my favourite animal.

  • 4. Gemma is ___ best artist in our class.

  • 5. I think ___ love is the most important thing in the world.

  • 6. She has two cats and a dog. ___ dog is called Charlie.

  • 7. What did you eat for ___ lunch?

  • 8. ___ girls in her class are really lovely, she is making great friends.

  • 9. I would love to live on ___ moon.

  • 10. Go and sit on ___ chair in the corner.