When to Use “The” in English: The Definitive Guide
One of the most important words in the English language only has three little letters.
It’s the word “the”!
We use “the” to talk about specific things. Usually, this means the person you are talking to will know exactly what noun or object you are referring to.
“The” might be small, but knowing when to use it can be a big problem for English learners.
Read on to find out exactly when to use “the” in English, and everything there is to know about this small but powerful word!
|When to use "the"||Example|
|To be specific||The apple on that table|
|To talk generally about a group||The workers|
|To talk about certain countries||The United States|
|To talk about geography||The Himalayas|
|To highlight something unique||The sun|
|To make something special||The White House|
|To show that something is important||The love of my life|
|To keep things in order||The seventh|
When to Use “The” in English
Let’s look at some examples and guidelines (general rules) that will help you know when to use “the” in English.
To be specific
Especially in American English, “the” is used to talk about a specific person, place or thing.
Pretend you are having lunch at a restaurant. If there are soups, salads, burgers and sandwiches on the menu, you can say, “I’ll have the spinach salad and the mushroom burger.”
The restaurant probably has more than one salad or burger available (ready), so using “the” helps you state that you want those specific menu items.
Here are a few more examples of this very common way to use the word “the”:
I want to adopt the puppy we saw yesterday.
(You don’t just want any puppy, you want that specific puppy.)
I’ll get the kids ready to go outside.
(You’re talking about a group of specific kids, maybe yours or ones you are responsible for.)
Did you play the game all night?
(You’re asking about a specific game, not any game. It’s most likely one that you’ve spoken about before.)
Sometimes, using “the” in this way means you need to hear unspoken words.
Imagine these situations:
Your friend says, “I’m going to the store to get some potatoes.”
The news reporter on TV says, “The injured (hurt) man was taken to the hospital.”
There is more than one store, so which one is “the” store your friend is going to? And there is more than one hospital, so which one was the man brought to?
It helps to understand the unspoken words in these sentences. For example, when we say, “the store” or “the hospital,” we might really be saying “the [closest] store” or “the [local] hospital.”
In fact, the movie “The Naked Gun” makes fun of this, giving their hospital the literal name “The Hospital” (but your local hospital is likely to have an actual name!).
So you could say, “I’m going to the office” when you mean, “I’m going to the office [where I work].” That’s another example of hidden or unspoken words.
Special note: American English and British English sometimes use “the” differently in this way.
With certain words, such as “hospital,” the American English and British English use of the word “the” will be different. Let’s look at a few examples:
|Word/Concept||American English||British English|
|Hospital||I was in the hospital.||I was in hospital.|
|Market||We went to the market.||We went to market.|
|Seasons||He wears warm clothes in the winter.||He wears warm clothes in winter.|
|Days||She went there on Monday.||She went there on the Monday.|
Try to focus on the rules for the type of English you are studying, but don’t worry too much about these differences.
Fluent and native speakers of American English and British English can usually understand each other fairly easily, so you probably won’t run into many problems.
To talk generally about a group
You can use “the” with a singular noun to talk about a whole group.
For instance, you could say, “The cat is a furry animal.” Of course, there are many, many cats in the world. But when you say, “The cat is a furry animal,” people will know that you’re talking about cats as a species (special group).
You can talk about all sorts of groups in general like this:
The English and the Italians played in the World Cup last year.
The elderly (older people) have different needs than the young.
To talk about certain countries
English doesn’t normally use “the” with country names. For example, you would not say, “the Germany,” “the Croatia” or “the Japan.” However, there are exceptions (examples that don’t follow the rules).
We do use “the” in English to talk about countries comprised (made up) of many lands, territories, states or islands. Some examples include:
- The Philippines
- The Bahamas
- The Netherlands
To talk about geography
You use “the” in front of names of oceans, rivers, seas, straits and gulfs, as well as mountain ranges:
- The Indian Ocean
- The Mississippi River
- The Caspian Sea
- The Bering Strait
- The Gulf of Mexico
- The Pyrenees
A few bays also use “the,” usually when their names follow the pattern, “the Bay of _____”:
- The Bay of Bengal
- The Bay of Fundy
- The Bay of Kotor
Natives to the American states of Maryland and Virginia almost always call their shared bay “the Chesapeake Bay,” even though it doesn’t follow the usual pattern.
On the other hand, San Francisco Bay and Paradise Bay do not use “the.”
To highlight something unique
When there’s only one of something, we use “the” when we’re talking about it.
There’s only one universe—so we say that it’s “the universe.”
In the universe, there are billions of stars—but only one sun around which our planet orbits (circles). So, we call it “the sun.”
There are billions of planets in the universe. But there is only one home planet for humans right now, which we call “the earth.”
To make something special
Sometimes, very ordinary English words are used to talk about something special and unique.
For instance, 50 states make up a particular country called “the United States.” And the leader of that country—the President—lives in a light-colored building we call “the White House.”
Both “white” and “house” are ordinary (common) words. So are “united” and “states.” In both cases, we use “the” to make it clear that we’re talking about something very specific and special.
The same is true when we talk about “the European Union,” “the United Nations,” “the United Kingdom” or “the World Cup.”
To show that something is important
Adding “the” can show importance.
During a heated discussion (talk), you might say, “That’s not the point.” When you say this, you’re telling your listener that they aren’t understanding the main idea of your argument.
If you say, “You’re the love of my life,” you’re telling someone special that they’re the greatest love in your whole life. Even if you’ve been in love before, this person is “the one” for you.
But “the one” isn’t always about romance. Sometimes, it simply means, “the one that I want” or “the one you’re talking about.”
To keep things in order
“The” is often used when describing the order of things. It’s used with ordinal numbers in English, like “the first,” “the second,” “the third” or “the eighteenth.”
That means you use “the” with dates. For example:
The United States celebrates Independence Day on the fourth of July.
Children dress up for Halloween on the thirty-first of October.
In these examples, the word “day” is unspoken. People will understand that you mean, “the fourth [day] of July” or “the thirty-first [day] of October.”
“The” can also be used with words like “most,” “only,” “best” and “worst.” (These types of words, which change the meaning of nouns and other words in English, are called adjectives.)
For example, in a romantic moment, you might say, “The first time we met, I knew you were the only one for me. And I knew this would be the last time I’d fall in love. The worst days of my life are behind me now. I want to spend the best part of my life with you.”
When Not to Use “The” in English
It’s just as important to know when not to use “the.” Here are a few guidelines for figuring this out.
With some proper names
“The” is not used with most names in English, unless you’re using a last name to talk about a family group. For example, you would never say “the Mary” or “the Mr. Smith” but you can say “the Smiths are going shopping.”
For companies, you typically use “the” if you add something before or after the name:
We went to the McDonald’s down the street.
I wanted the mobile phone I saw at the Vodafone store on High Street.
The local Tesco just started selling a new brand of hot sauces.
This is because you’re being specific, like in our very first point above.
However, for many company names, you might add “the” when you use the full name. When you add words like “company,” “corporation” or “association” after a proper name, you can add “the” in front of the proper name.
For instance, the full name of Disney is “The Walt Disney Company.” Similarly, “The Home Depot” is a large North American store that sells hardware and building supplies.
Further, “the” is usually not used with the names of schools, colleges and universities:
He got a degree from Harvard University.
Bart and Lisa are students at Springfield Elementary School.
Rydell High held a school dance.
The students at Hogwarts live in four houses.
However, if you were talking about a school with a name like “University of Maryland” or “University of Exeter” you would use “the,” as in “the University of Maryland” or “the University of Exeter.”
With an “understood” possessive
You’ll often hear native English speakers say things like, “I’m going to work after I drive my daughter to school.”
“To work” or “to school” almost sound like verbs in their infinitive (basic, unchanged) forms.
In this case, though, “work” and “school” are both physical places. Yet, we don’t use “the” in front of either one in this sentence.
Instead, imagine that there are unspoken or “understood” possessives (words that show belonging) in sentences like this.
So, “I’m going to work after I drive my daughter to school” could be understood as “I’m going to [my] work[place] after I drive my daughter to [her] school.”
To talk about something in general
When you’re talking about more than one non-specific item, like “books,” “fruits” or “vegetables,” you don’t use “the”:
Books can teach us a lot.
Fruits and vegetables are good for our health.
And if you’re speaking generally about personal qualities, such as “patience” or “kindness,” you’d leave out the word “the”:
Patience is a virtue.
Kindness makes it easier to get along with others.
When you should use “a” or “an”
If you want to talk about a single item—or even a person—and you’re not talking about any special one, you can use “a” or “an” instead of “the”:
A boy was eating an apple while reading a book about a toy train.
Or you might say, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please.” You’re not asking for a specific cup of coffee—any cup of coffee will do.
It’s important to know when to use “a” and when to use “an.” They mean exactly the same thing, you just need to match them to the words they describe:
- Use “a” with words that start with consonant sounds.
- Use “an” with words that start with vowel sounds.
Sometimes you have to be extra careful when choosing between “a” and “an.” For instance, some English words like “Europe,” “use” and “universe” start with vowels, but not vowel sounds.
So you’d say, “a European country,” and not “an European country.”
Let’s say you are talking about how a certain word is spelled. With letter names that start with vowel sounds, you use “an.” So you can say, “There’s an ‘e’ at the beginning of the word ‘Europe,'” as well as “The second letter in ‘Europe’ is a ‘u.’“
However, you’ll need to be careful when a word starts with the letter “h.” Sometimes it’s pronounced (said) like a consonant, as in “history,” “help” and “helmet.”
But other times, the “h” in English silent. The first sound you hear in a word starting with an “h” might be a vowel sound. In the words “hour,” “honest” and “heir,” the letter “h” is not pronounced.
Let’s see this in action:
An honest man named Harpo was an heir to the throne of Freedonia. A history of his country says that he often wore a helmet.
A very special case involving the letter “h” is the word “historic.” Even native English speakers can’t agree whether we should use “a” or “an” with “historic”!
This is also a problem with the word “historical.” The good news is that you can use either “a” or “an” with historic/historical, and you might hear either one from native English speakers, too.
Why “The” Is Essential in English
Over 150 languages in the world have no word that means the same thing as “the” in English. It might be hard to imagine why English needs the word “the” at all.
Modern English, though, has a very different grammar than many other languages. It doesn’t have a lot of cases (changes in words that show changes in meaning).
For example, in Romanian, copil is “(a) child,” but copilul is “the child.” Romanian doesn’t use a separate word for “the” because “the” is part of the word.
Many languages work in a similar way to Romanian: You don’t learn a separate word for “the,” but you learn to change the words themselves to reflect (show) their meanings.
So, instead of changing the words themselves, English depends on words called articles to express certain meanings.
There are three articles in English. The words “a” and “an” are indefinite articles because they’re used to talk about non-specific things. The word “the” is a definite article and is used to talk about specific things.
When you use “the” correctly in English, you accomplish (do) two very important things:
- Make your meaning clear. Using “the”—or not using it—can be a way to say what you mean more clearly.
- Sound more like a native. Native English speakers expect to hear “the” often, but not randomly (for no reason). When you use “the” correctly, your English will sound more fluent.
How to Practice Using “The” in English
To get good at using “the” the right way, even as a beginner English learner, you need to practice. This means both seeing and hearing how “the” is used by native speakers, and trying to use it yourself.
Try finding “the” in English materials: Look for it in simple books, such as children’s books. Listen for it in English-language songs.
You can also watch and listen for “the” in real-world English videos. On the FluentU language learning program, for example, you can look up “the” in the video dictionary to see every video that uses it.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Next, try using “the” yourself! When you practice speaking in English, pay attention to when you should use “the.”
If you’re talking with someone, listen for when the other person uses “the.” Then, you can try to mirror (copy) them. For example, your friend says, “The weather here is terrible!” Then, you could say, “Why is the weather so bad?”
You can also write sentences with “the” when you practice English writing.
If you’re not sure when to use “the” (or the indefinite articles “a” and “an”), you can try grammar exercises to help you see how “the” should—and shouldn’t—be used:
- English 4U’s Articles Exercise. It has short sentences and is best for beginners studying British English.
- EnglishPage’s English Articles Final Test. The sentences in Part 1 are shorter and simpler, and the sentences in Part 2 are more for intermediate (mid-level) learners.
- English Current’s Articles Exercises. There are exercises for learners of all levels to practice using “the,” “an” or “a.”
With the examples we have looked at, “the” will be less of a mystery to you.
So, the next time you speak or write in English, you’ll have a better idea whether or not to use “the,” “a” or “an.” And that’s an important step to becoming a more fluent English speaker!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.