One of the most important words in the English language is surprisingly short.
It’s only three little letters.
It’s the word “the”!
It might be small, but knowing when to use “the” in English can be a big problem for learners.
When do you use it? When don’t you use it?
Why do you need it at all?
Let’s find out everything there is to know about this small but powerful word!
Why “The” Is Essential in English
Over 150 languages in the world have no word that means the same thing as “the” in English. So, 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.
Instead of changing the words themselves, English depends on little words such as “the” to express certain meanings. These are called articles and include the words “the,” “a” and “an.”
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 it’s 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, sometimes, not using it—can be a way to say more clearly what you mean. We’ll talk in detail about when and why you should use “the” in English.
- Sound more like a native. Native English speakers expect to hear “the” often, but not just used 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 to English, you’ll need to practice it. This means both seeing and hearing how it’s used by native speakers, and trying to use it yourself.
Learn it from real-world resources.
When you’re first getting familiar with “the,” try to get an idea of how it’s used by English speakers.
Look for it in simple books, such as children’s books that help you learn English grammar.
Listen for it in English-language songs.
Hear it used in English conversations.
Watch and listen for it in real-world English videos, like the ones that you’ll find on the FluentU app. Some of these videos can explain how and why English speakers use “the” and other important words.
But there’s more to FluentU than grammar explanations.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
When you watch authentic (real-life) videos with FluentU, you’ll understand even better how to use “the” in English. You’ll see and hear how “the” is used in everyday life.
FluentU helps you to learn every word in the videos you watch, so you can understand more of the English you see and hear. With quizzes that adapt (change) for your learning level, you can practice what you learn and improve your English.
Give it a try with the free FluentU trial!
Use “the” in conversation.
When you practice speaking in English, pay attention to when you should use “the.”
If you’re talking with someone, face-to-face or on the phone, listen for when the other person uses “the.” Then, try to mirror (copy) them.
For example, if your friend were to say, “The weather here is terrible,” you could say, “Why is the weather so bad?”
Try writing sentences with “the.”
Include “the” in the sentences you create when you practice English writing.
If you’re not sure when to use “the” or a similar word (like “a” or “an”), you can try grammar exercises to help you see how “the” should—or shouldn’t—be used.
These exercises will also help you figure out when to use no article (words like “the,” “a” or “an”):
- The English 4U Articles Exercise has shorter sentences, and is better for beginners studying British English.
- Add “the” to your vocabulary list while using watching any video in the ever-growing FluentU library. The program gives you exercises that’ll let you practice using it, like fill in the blank and multiple-choice quizzes.
- In the English Articles Final Test from EnglishPage.com, the sentences in Part 1 are shorter and simpler. The sentences in Part 2 are more for intermediate (mid-level) learners.
- EnglishCurrent has exercises for learners at all levels to practice using “the,” “an” or “a.”
When to Use “The” in English: The Definitive Guide
Knowing when to use “the” in English isn’t always easy. We’ll look at some examples and guidelines (general rules).
Reasons to Use “The” in English
There are many reasons to use “the” in English. Here are a few common ones.
Especially in American English, “the” is used to talk about a specific person, place or thing.
Let’s say you were having lunch at a restaurant. If there were soups, salads, burgers and sandwiches on the menu, you could say, “I’ll have the spinach salad and the mushroom burger.”
The restaurant would likely have more than one salad or burger available (ready), but you’re using “the” to state that you want those specific menu items, based on all other possible choices.
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 referring to a group of specific kids, maybe yours or ones who you’re responsible for.)
- “Did you play the game all night?” (You’re interested in a specific game, not any game—most likely one that you’ve spoken about before.)
Hearing unspoken words.
You might hear a friend say, “I’m going to the store to get some potatoes.” Since there is more than one store, which one would be “the” store?
Later that night, you’re watching the news. You hear that someone was injured (hurt), and “taken to the hospital.” Again, you know that there is more than one hospital, so this is a little confusing.
It helps to understand that there are 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.” 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!).
You could also 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.
British versus American English usage.
For certain words, such as “hospital,” British and American English use of the word “the” will be different. Let’s look at a few examples:
|Word(s)/Concept(s)||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 of the Year||“He wears warm clothes in the winter.”||“He wears warm clothes in winter.”|
|Days of the Week||“She went there on Monday.”||“She went there on the Monday.”|
Try to focus on the rules for the type of English you’re studying, but don’t worry too much about these differences.
Fluent speakers of American English and British English can usually understand each other fairly easily. So, no matter which set of rules you follow for these special words, native and fluent English speakers should still understand you.
Talking generally about a group.
You can use “the” with a singular noun to talk about a whole group.
So, 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).
“The” is used to talk about other groups in general:
- “The English and the Italians played in the World Cup.”
- “The elderly (older people) have different needs than the young.”
Talking about some countries.
English doesn’t normally use “the” with country names. For example, you would not say, “the Germany,” “the France” or “the Croatia.” However, there are exceptions (examples that don’t follow the rules).
We do use “the” in English when talking about countries comprised (made up) of many lands, territories, states or islands:
- The Philippines
- The Bahamas
- The Netherlands
Talking about geography.
You would 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 would 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.
San Francisco Bay and Paradise Bay, on the other hand, would not use “the.”
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.”
Making 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 pale building we call “the White House.”
Both “white” and “house” are ordinary (common) words, as are “united” and “states”—so we use “the” to make it clear that we’re talking about something very specific.
The same is true when we talk about “the European Union,” “the United Nations,” “the United Kingdom” or “the World Cup.”
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 know that they aren’t understanding the main point 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 entire (whole) life. Even if you’ve been in love before, that person is “the one” for you.
“The one” isn’t always about romance. Sometimes, it simply means, “the one that I want” or “the one you’re talking about.”
Keeping things in order.
“The” is often used when describing the order of things. It’s used with ordinal numbers in English, like “first,” “second,” “third” or “eighteenth.”
“The” can 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.”
You can also use “the” with dates. For example, “The United States celebrates Independence Day on the fourth of July.” Or, “Children dress up for Halloween on the thirty-first of October.” (The word “day” is unspoken. You’d really be saying, “the fourth day of July” or “the thirty-first day of October.”)
When Not to Use “The”
It’s just as important to know when not to use “the.” There are a few guidelines for figuring this out.
Talking about some proper names.
“The” is not used with given (personal) names or family 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 many company names, you might only add “the” when you used the full name. For instance, the full name of Disney would be “The Walt Disney Company.”
You wouldn’t use “the” unless you added something before or after the name:
- “We went to the McDonald’s down the street.”
- “I wanted the mobile I saw at the Vodafone store in High Street.”
- “The local Tesco just started selling a new brand of hot sauces.”
When you add words like “company,” “corporation” or “association” after a proper name, you can add “the” in front of the proper name.
Some proper names, like names of corporations (big companies), use the word “the” as part of their names. For example, “The Home Depot” is a large North American store that sells hardware and building supplies.
“The” is often 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 “the University of Maryland” or “the University of Exeter,” you would use “the” before the word “university.”
Using 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, you wouldn’t use “the” in front of either “work” or “school” in this sentence.
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.”
Speaking about something in general.
When you’re talking about more than one non-specific item, like “books” or “fruits” or “vegetables,” you wouldn’t use “the.”
If you’re speaking generally about some personal qualities, such as “patience” or “kindness,” you’d leave out the word “the”:
- “Books can teach us a lot.”
- “Fruits and vegetables are good for health.”
- “Patience is a virtue.”
- “Kindness makes it easier to get along with others.”
When to Use “A” or “An” Instead of “The”
There are times when you want to talk about just one of something—and you aren’t talking about a specific something.
That’s when you’d use “a” or “an” in English.
Talking about single, non-specific items.
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 at all will do.
Matching “a” or “an” to the words they describe.
“A” and “an” mean exactly the same thing and are used basically the same way.
“A” is used with words that start with consonant sounds.
“An” is used with words that start with vowel sounds.
We’ll look at this more closely—especially for cases where you have to be extra careful when choosing between “a” and “an.”
Vowels that don’t sound like vowels.
English words like “Europe,” “use” and “universe” start with a vowel, but not a vowel sound.
So you’d say, “a European country,” but not “an European vacation.”
Let’s say you were talking about how a certain word is spelled. With letter names that start with vowel sounds, you’d use “an.”
For instance, you might say, “There’s an e in the beginning of the word ‘Europe.’” But, you could then say, “The second letter in ‘Europe’ is a u.”
The letter “h.”
The letter h at the start of an English word can be a problem.
Sometimes, it’s pronounced (said) like a consonant. Think of the English words “history” and “help” and “helmet.”
Other times, the h in English silent. The first sound you hear in a word starting with an h might a vowel. 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 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 a related word, “historical.”
The good news is that you can use either “a” or “an.” You might hear either one from native English speakers.
With the examples we’ve 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!
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in a few others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is a content writer and education blogger. Find out more at StellaWriting.com.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.