Definite article

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A definite article is a grammatical article expressing 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.

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]

Other related European 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.

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However, within a definite noun phrase the definite article is can be superseded by a dependent possessive determiner, (e.g. "the house" --> "my 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 The can also be superseded by demonstrative determiners, this, these, that and those and possessive case nouns, e.g. Fred's car.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.

Pronunciation[edit | edit source]

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

The strong form of "the" is (/ði:/) and the weak form is (/ðə/). The weak form /ðə/ is commonly used before consonant sounds, rather than the strong form /ði:/. This is based on speech sounds and not spelling, so that we use /ðə/ before:

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

Conversely, the strong form is typically used before vowel sounds 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]