As Laurel J. Brinton has noted, "There are several different uses for each article, articles are often omitted, and there are dialectal differences in the use of articles. Thus, article usage can be an area of grammar which is very difficult for non-native speakers to master" (The Linguistic Structure of Modern English, 2010). See Examples and Observations, below.
- Notes on the Definite Article
- Indefinite Article
- "The Robber and Little Ann": A Fable About Definite and Indefinite Articles
- Zero Article
Examples and Observations:
- "Horseshoes are lucky. Horses have four bits of lucky nailed to their feet. They should be the luckiest animals in the world. They should rule the country."
(Eddie Izzard, Definite Article, 1996)
- I'm reading the most fascinating article on the most fascinating people of the year.
- "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
(Apocalypse Now, 1979)
- "Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer."
- "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."
- Major Uses of the Definite Article
"In broad outline, the major uses of the are the following:
1. for something previously mentioned: yesterday I read a book . . . the book was about space travel (This is the anaphoric, or 'pointing back,' function of the definite article);(Laurel J. Brinton and Donna M. Brinton, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. John Benjamins, 2010)
2. for a unique or fixed referent: the Prime Minister, the Lord, the Times, the Suez Canal;
3. for a generic referent: (I love) the piano, (We are concerned about) the unemployed;
4. for something which is part of the immediate socio-physical context or generally known: the doorbell, the kettle, the sun, the weather;
5. for something identified by a modifying expression either preceding or immediately following the noun: the gray horse, the house at the end of the block; and
6. for converting a proper noun to a common noun: the England he knew, the Shakespeare of our times, the Hell I suffered."
- Use of the Definite Article Before Familiar Nouns
"Definite articles are . . . used when the speaker assumes that because the listener belongs to the same community, he or she shares specific knowledge of their surroundings. For example, if two people who work in the same place are discussing where to meet for lunch, one of them might say something like the first sentence in (36):
Rebecca: Let's meet at the cafeteria at 12:15.Here, the definite article is used because both speakers are part of the same work community; the cafeteria is part of their shared knowledge."
Paul: Okay, I'll see you then.
(Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
- Definite Articles and Proper Names
"We only use proper names with a stressed definite article when the person is famous or when we doubt his identity in spite of knowing his name, as in Are you THE Bill Hunter?, implying that there may be different persons of the same name but one is better known than the others. . . .
"The situation is different with geographical names, or toponyms, which are notorious for their seemingly unsystematic use: some have no article, others have the definite article. Whether a geographical name is used with or without a definite article is often a matter of historical accident. . . .
"The names of most countries such as Canada take no article, which reflects their conceptualisation of a clearly bounded political entity. Countries or geographical areas that are seen as collections of political units take a plural proper name with the definite articles, as in the United States, the Netherlands, and the Baltics.
"A clear instance of a semantic opposition between the zero-article form and the definite article is found in the names of states such as Ohio and names of rivers such as the Ohio. States are clearly bounded political entities, while rivers are natural phenomena that may stretch for hundreds, even thousands of miles so that we do not have their overall extension in mind. Most river names, therefore, require the definite article to mark an unbounded entity as a unique referent."
(Günter Radden and René Dirven, Cognitive English Grammar. John Benjamins, 2007)
- The Most Common Word
"The is the most commonly used word in the English language, occurring nearly 62,000 times in every million words written or uttered--or about once in every 16 words. That's more than twice as often as the runner-up, of. . . .
"Americans do have a thing for the word the. We say 'in the hospital' and 'in the spring'; the British sensibly omit the article. They favor collective or purely regional sports team names, such as Manchester United or Arsenal, while we have the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Angels (which when you translate the Spanish becomes 'the the Angels Angels'), and such syntactical curiosities as the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic."
(Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Broadway Books, 2007)
- Usage Tip
"Leaving 'the' out often reads like jargon: say the conference agreed to do something, not 'conference agreed'; the government has to do, not 'government has to'; the Super League (rugby), not 'Super League.'"
(David Marsh, Guardian Style. Guardian Books, 2007)
- The Lighter Side of the Definite Article
"What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common?
"They have the same middle name."
(Ted Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. The University of Chicago Press, 1999)