If you examine a sample of English writing or speech, and count how many times the various words in it appear, you will be struck by an interesting fact. Except perhaps in very short samples, there is always one particular word which appears more than all the rest by far. It is always the same little word. That word is the, the most frequently used word in the English language.

Obviously, a word used this often must be very important to the speakers of the language. Yet no speaker of English has to study how to use this word in school. No native speaker has to consciously learn the many rules for its use. Every speaker learns the use of the word the through years of experience, and probably never gives it a second thought. Unless, of course, the day comes when he has to try and teach the use of the word to speakers of a language which doesn't have it. For them, for speakers of languages like Japanese, it is probably the most difficult English word of all to learn to use correctly.

The word the is very important to native speakers of English because it is used to divide the world we process through language into two categories: old information and new information. It helps us to divide the world into things which we agree are known, or important, and things which we feel aren't. If you understand how we use this word, you will have a key to how we look at the world. And if you learn how to use this word, we will understand you clearly.

The is one of the grammatical words of English. It does not have any real meaning by itself, but rather it is used as a way of sending a signal about other words. The words it sends signals about are always nouns.

In that sense English is a rather materialistic language. The word the is used to help us talk about things, rather than events. The is used as a signal meaning that the speaker (/writer) wants the listener (/reader) to understand whether the thing being spoken of is shared (old) information, or new information, worthy of note.

For example, the following sentences can be considered for the opening sentence of a story:1

    1a. The boy was walking down the main street of the town.
    1b. The boy was walking down a main street of the town.
    1c. The boy was walking down a main street of a town.
    1d. The boy was walking down a main street of town.
    1e. The boy was walking down Main Street.

    2a. A boy was walking down the main street of the town.
    2b. A boy was walking down a main street of the town.
    2c. A boy was walking down a main street of a town.
    2d. A boy was walking down a main street of town.
    2e. A boy was walking down Main Street.

Sentence 1a uses the three times; before 'boy', 'main', and 'town'. The listener / reader realizes that he is expected to know:

    1. who the boy is,
    2. what the town is, and
    3. that it is a relatively small town.
This last piece of information comes from the phrase "the main street" which presents "old information," the common knowledge that towns have one or more main streets, and small towns have a single main street, designated as "the main street (of (a/the/0) town)".

This use of the is a literary device to bring the reader into the story "midstream". It's as if had he opened the book to the middle and started reading. He's "supposed to" know who and where, but actually, he doesn't.

This use of the is for "natural properties," but what English speakers consider to be natural properties of things and what speaker of other languages think may be different things. The English speaker has somehow acquired the "knowledge" that small towns have a single main street, and that therefore when speaking of that street, the the of natural property is used. This is the same use as in the phrases "Open the door," "Close the window," "the wind is strong," "I'd like to speak to the manager," etc. All these signal "the one you'd expect," "the one everybody knows".


To begin to understand how the is used, we must first think about nouns. All nouns are not the same. To begin with, we can divide all nouns into two large groups: proper nouns, and common nouns.
        common    Proper

Proper nouns are names. They are names for people, streets, books, movies, restaurants, countries, rivers, songs, etc. They indicate one specific thing, they point to one and only one example of a type. English proper nouns are always written with the first letter capitalized. Words like John, Japan, Mars, Fifth Avenue, Ginza, etc, are all proper nouns. Proper nouns don't need a the. It's as if they already have one attached, so they can't (except under certain unusual circumstances) take another one. They already mean "the one you know"

Common nouns, on the other hand, are general words for types of things. They do not stand for one specific example of a thing, but rather for a class of things, for a type of thing. Words like pencil, boy, river, book, etc, are all concrete common nouns. They can never be used without some form of classifier or article in dialogue. They are all "things" and so we must either know about them beforehand or not.


    A pencil is a valuable tool.
    The pencil is a valuable tool.
    Pencils are valuable tools.
These three sentences essentially mean the same thing, a general statement about pencils. But the question forms:

    Did you bring a pencil?
    Did you bring the pencil?
    Did you bring pencils?

are all asking for different information.

English common nouns are of two types, countable and uncountable.

          common    Proper
        countable    uncountable
Countable nouns are words for things which can be counted, so they can be preceded by numbers, or by words like many, several, a few, etc. Such words as book, pencil, boy, river, etc, are countable. Countable nouns can have both singular and plural forms2.

Uncountable nouns are also called mass nouns. These are words for things like water, wood, air, cotton, wool, etc, which are not countable, but are measurable. When we talk about quantities of these things we use words like much, some, a lot of, a little, or measuring words like "a cup of water" "a liter of milk" "a kilogram of wool", "a piece of wood", etc.

So we have a picture of types of nouns which looks like this:

          common    Proper
        countable    uncountable
      singular    plural
To begin with, let's look at singular, countable, common nouns, which we can just call singular nouns. They have a special rule. Singular nouns are always preceded by one of a small group of special grammatical words, which we will call "determiners".


These singular determiners, the grammatical words which are used before singular nouns, are of five types3:
  1. articles:
      a/an4, (some5), the
  2. demonstratives:
      this, that
  3. counting words
      each, every, one, no, any
  4. possessive pronouns:
      my              our
      your            your (pl)
      his/her/its   their
  5. question words:
      which, whose, what

This means, for example, that a singular noun such as "book" can never appear in a sentence like:

*I have book.7

But with a determiner, there are many possible setences like that:

I have a book.
I have the book.
I have that book.
I have your book.

Of course, a noun such as "book" can be modified by any number of adjectives, such as "big", "thick", "red", etc.. We call a noun with modifying words a noun phrase, but even if it is a noun phrase, it must be preceded by one of the determiners. So this sentence is also not an acceptable English sentence:

*I have big, thick, red book.

To make a correct sentence, it has to be like one of the following:

I have a big, thick, red book.
I have the big, thick, red book.
I have your big, thick, red book.
I have that big, thick, red book.
I have John's big, thick, red book.

One of the rules about determiners is, that there can never be two of them preceding a single noun (phrase). That means there cannot be an English sentence like:

*I have my that book.

Some of the words which modify nouns are not as clearly adjectives as those in the sentences above, but rather they appear as phrases like:

kind of, type of, sort of, variety of, style of...

But these words also must be preceded by a determiner when they modify a noun. So there cannot be a sentence like:

*I have kind of book.

Rather it has to be a sentence like:

I have that kind of book. or He has some kind of book.

Other modifying words like other8, same also need to be preceded by a determiner:

I have the same book. Did you bring the other book?

Let's take another look at the first rule which can help us in the mastery of the use of the English articles:

Every singular noun (phrase) must be preceded by one and only one singular determiner.

When a speaker places the before a noun, he is generally sending a signal to the user that the noun marked with the is something that he believes the listener already knows about. When the listener hears a noun marked by the, he usually thinks to himself "this is something that speaker thinks I know."

For example, if I hear someone say "Open the door," I know that he thinks I know which door he means. If the sentence is coming from outside of my front door...

Some exceptions...

When the noun refers to someone or something that is unique or is thought of as unique or exists as only one at a time:

the Lord, the Messiah, the devil, the sun, the earth, the universe, the Pope, the Dalai Lama

Often used with some kinds of geographical names, especially of rivers:

the Hudson; oceans: the Atlantic; seas: the Adriatic

and groups (as of islands and mountains) that have a plural name, but a distinctive identity:

the Azores, the Alps.

Often used with names of literary or artistic works:

the Paradise Lost, the Mona Lisa, the Moonlight Sonata

Before nouns that designate natural phenomena or points of the compass:

the night is cold, the heat is intense, the wind came from the east, the clouds look threatening

Before some, especially rather old-fashioned or non-technical names of diseases:

the palsy, the measles, the piles, the flu, the pox

Before a title or a class name to designate the particular holder of that title, or the particular member of that class that is most familiar to the speaker or writer by reason of the nation or culture of which he is a member:

the President, the Congress, the Civil War, the west coast, the Renaissance

to be continued...

1 Consider also the following:
    He was walking down the main street of the town.
    He was walking down a main street of the town.
    He was walking down a main street of a town.
    He was walking down a main street of town.
    He was walking down Main Street.

2 Some words use the same form for the singular and plural, like fish or sheep.

3 Sometimes words which appear to be singular nouns appear in phrases with in, by, at, or other prepositions without a determiner. These are fixed phrases which usually function as adverbs, and their use must be learned separately.

4 The words a and an are two forms of the same word, with the an form appearing before words which begin with a vowel sound (not spelling). So we say "a university", since university begins with the sound [ju], but we say "an honor", since honor begins with the sound [a].

5 This "some" is not the counting word some, but a word used in place of a/an with the meaning of "an indefinite one". eg: Some man came to the house.

6 The possessive 's only functions as a determiner when it is attached to a proper noun. When it is attached to a common noun, the resulting noun phrase must be preceded by a determiner: the earth's surface, John's book.

7 Ungrammatical sentences in this text are marked by an asterisk (*) and crossed through: *ungrammatical.

8 We have to be careful about the word other in the word another. It really is the two words an + other -- the determiner (an) is part of the word: I have another book.