The Good News About “The”

May 14, 2021

In a recent post, we discussed how indefinite article a/an introduces a singular count noun for listeners/readers who are NOT expected to be familiar with it yet:

I bought a bicycle yesterday.

Such a first mention of a noun often starts a story or description: 

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.  The bike is built for long-distance riding, so it’s really sturdy.  I plan to take trips with it on country backroads.

… or a conversation:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did the bicycle cost?

After introducing “a bicycle,” we can switch to definite article the, since the bicycle is now familiar in context.

Here’s some good news: the is used in the same way for singular, plural & noncount nouns, so you don’t have to worry about grammatical number:

A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were the eagles doing?

—————————————————

A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was the advice about?

—————————————————

And no worries about grammatical gender, either — no feminine, masculine, or neuter forms to keep track of (as in French, where the-equivalents la & le apply to feminine & masculine nouns, respectively). Thankfully, in modern English, the is always just the 

More good news: the is similar to its “th-cousins” this, that, these, those, which helps us understand WHY we use it.  All five words point at specific nouns or definite concepts, and their th– spelling suggests a close relationship.  This, that, these & those point more emphatically at their target nouns than the, but all five words’ pointing function — indicating something specific or definite — is often similar.

So it can be useful to consider the a short form of this, that, these, those.  Notice the meanings of this, that & those in the dialogs below are nearly identical with the preceding the-versions:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did this bicycle cost? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the bicycle”)

————————————————–

A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were those eagles doing? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the eagles”)

————————————————–

A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was that advice about?

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the advice”)

————————————————–

However, sometimes the is not exactly equivalent to this, that, these, those.  This happens when we refer to generally understood concepts/institutions or nouns that listeners/readers are expected to be familiar with.  

For example, if I say I’m going to “the bank” today, I usually mean “some branch or other of whatever bank I use”; “one of those places we call ‘bank,’” NOT “this bank” or “that bank.”

This leads to more good news: you can use the the first time you refer to nouns in such ways! Here are some examples:

a) Unique or ubiquitous nouns:

The sun is about 93 million miles from the earth.

I love the night sky when the air is clear and the stars are bright.

The weather is getting warmer as the environment is changing fast.

————————————————–

b) Common/familiar concepts, types of places & institutions in everyday life:

In the morning, I plan to go to the post office and the library. 

Would you rather live in the city, the suburbs or the country?

I prefer the beach: I love gazing at the ocean.  

————————————————–

c) Nouns referred to generically (general, abstract meaning):

The giraffe is known for its long neck, and the elephant for its long trunk.

Was the harpsichord an early version of the piano?

Tech companies plan to further miniaturize the smartwatch and implant it in the human body.

One interesting note: this meaning of the can sometimes be conveyed by a/an in its generic meaning of “any”:

The unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

A unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

As definitions of “unicycle,” these two sentences are interchangeable.  They both express “unicycle as a concept; any unicycle.”

————————————————–

d) Nouns immediately understood in context (in a particular situation or given scenario):

What’s the problem?

Pass me the dictionary, please.

Turn off the lights and come down to the lobby.

————————————————–

If you can enjoy understanding & using the, then here’s some final good news: it’s the most commonly occurring word in English — so that’s about a thousand bits of enjoyment in an average English-speaking day!


An earlier version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on May 13, 2021.

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