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Definite article

From Teflpedia

A definite article is a grammatical article that marks definiteness. English has only one definite article; the. This is often referred to as "the definite article" and is also the commonest word in English. Definite articles from other languages are sometimes used in loan phrases from those languages.

Meaning[edit | edit source]

We generally use "the" when we know which referent(s) are being referred to or "you know which one I mean.” The referent may be singular or plural.

However, we sometimes say the even if we don’t know, e.g. I’m going to the gym / "the library"/ "the supermarket,” etc. And we sometimes drop "the" even when we know which one we’re talking about; especially with 'school' and 'church'. e.g. “I’m going to school,” not %“I’m going to the school.”

  • The may mean "the only,” e.g. the moon, the government. This has definiteness because it’s the only one.
  • We use the with superlatives, e.g. Everest is the tallest mountain in the world. Again, we know which one.
  • The can be used to mean "the well-known,” e.g. Patrick Stewart, the actor.

Form[edit | edit source]

English only has one form of the definite article; the. This is used with nouns both singular and plural, with both noun cases, and of any grammatical gender:

Plain case Genitive case
Common gender singular the driver the driver’s
Dual gender singular the lawyer the lawyer’s
Feminine singular the woman the woman’s
Masculine singular the man the man’s
Neuter singular the table the table’s
Common gender plural the drivers the drivers’
Dual gender plural the lawyers the lawyers’
Feminine plural the women the women’s
Masculine plural the men the men’s
Neuter singular the tables the tables’

Related languages (notably German) have various definite articles that are inflected for case and/or gender. Although historically English had these, it has since lost them. Alternatively, one could analyse that articles must agree with the gender of the noun they determine, but that the three English genders all have the same form. So, we get:

If the noun is singular and countable, then the supersedes an indefinite article.

However, within a definite noun phrase the definite article is can be superseded by a dependent possessive pronoun, (e.g. the housemy house). The can also be superseded by demonstrative determiners, this, these, that and those and possessive case nouns, e.g. Fred’s car.

A definite article forms part of definite noun phrase.

Non-English definite articles[edit | edit source]

Non-English definite articles are sometimes used in loan phrases, especially of place names and artistic titles.

  • French: le (m-s), la (f-s) and les (pl).
  • Italian: il (m-s), la (f-s), i/gli (m-pl) and le (f-pl)
  • Spanish: el (m-s), la (f-s), los (m-pl) and las (f-pl).

In this case, we wouldn’t use an English definite article as well as the foreign one. There are some exceptions like The Los Angeles metropolitan area (in Spanish this is el área metropolitana de Los Ángeles, so this problem doesn’t arise.)

Teh[edit | edit source]

Another special case is teh which is the definite article used in Internet slang.[1] This is often deliberately used in ways that do not conform to English grammar.

Pronunciation[edit | edit source]

Strong form v. weak form[edit | edit source]

The strong form of the is (/ði:/) and its weak form is (/ðə/).

Weak form[edit | edit source]

The weak form /ðə/ is commonly used before consonant sounds. This is based on speech sounds rather than spelling, so that we use /ðə/ before:

  • Words beginning U but pronounced /ju:/, e.g. the university.
  • Words beginning with O but pronounced /w/, e.g. the one thing, the ouija board.

Strong form[edit | edit source]

Conversely, the strong form /ði:/ is typically used before vowel sounds, again regardless of spelling. This means that words with silent H take the strong form, e.g. the hour /ði: aʊə/.

The strong form is also used when speakers want to stress the following word, we often use /ði:/, even if that following word begins with a consonant: It’s the best place in town! (/ði: best/).

Elision[edit | edit source]

In rapid speech, ð may be elided to a schwa sound, particularly if merged into a previous /s/ or /z/ sound, so e.g. “What’s the matter" sounds like /ˈwɒtsəˈmætə/. Also e.g. "join the army" can end up as /ˈʤɔɪniˈɑ:mi:/.

Pedagogy[edit | edit source]

The definite article is introduced at beginner level.

The Germanic languages and Romance languages also have definite articles. However, EFL learners who have languages without L1s, notably Russian and Chinese, often struggle with definite articles.

EFL learners often struggle with the voiced dental fricative sound, and may employ th- substitution.

References[edit | edit source]