top of page

Use of THE

The definite article  is said to be one of the most frequently used words in English.



A generic plural noun does not need a definite article.

Some interesting facts on the definite article

Among the various articles in English (a/an, the and zero), the definite article the is considered to be “the most widely used” (López Pérez & Benali Taouis, 2018, p. 265). The uses of the are various and very complex, and this is why it has been difficult for researchers to classify them.


Basically, the uses of the fall into two major categories: generic and nongeneric (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999; Hawkins, 1978; Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, & Svartvik, 1985). The generic category makes reference to the use of the with singular nouns that usually indicate a class of entities (people of a nation, a species, a race) as in The Australian is very friendly, and also with plural or collective nouns as in The Australians are very friendly. However, the generic use is very rare as the can be replaced by the zero article Ø as in Australians are very friendly. Therefore, in most of the cases the use of the is found to be nongeneric. This category is usually grouped into different subcategories, such as those proposed by Hawkins (1978) in his “location theory” (see Quirk et al., 1985) or Liu’s and Gleason’s (2002) classification into cultural, situation, structural and textual use.


Regarding the use of the definite article by Spanish learners of English, research reveals that language transfer from the first language affects the proper use of the in English. This means that Spanish learners transfer some properties of the definite article in the Spanish language (the generic reference, for example) to English and consequently they overuse the in English (López Pérez & Benali Taouis, 2018). However, the use of the in English is not as complicated as it seems and with just some simple rules, you can get a good command of the English definite article.

The cookie bought cookies from the cookie shop.

How wonderful the cookies CleverCookie bought!


More information:

  • Bickerton, D. (1981). Roots of language. Karoma Publishers.

  • Brown, D. H. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th ed.).  Pearson Education.

  • Celce-Murcia, M., & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The grammar book: An ESL teacher’s course (2nd ed.).  Heinle & Heinle.

  • Dulay, H., Burt, M., & Krashen, S. (1982). Language two. Oxford University Press.

  • García Mayo, M. del P. 2008. The acquisition of four nongeneric uses of the article the by Spanish EFL learners. System, 36, 550-565.

  • Hawkins, J. (1978). Definiteness and indefiniteness.  Academic Press.

  • Isabelli-García, C. & Slough, R. (2012). Acquisition of the non-generic definite article by Spanish learners of English as a foreign language. Onomázein, 25(1), 95–105.

  • Liu, D. & Gleason, J. L. (2002). Acquisition of the article the by nonnative speakers of English: An analysis of four types of use. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 1–26.

  • López Pérez, S., & Benali Taouis, H. (2018). The use of the definite article in English by Spanish students of English. Error Analysis in a Learner Corpus. In B. Tejero Claver, O. Bernard Cavero & C. Lechuga Jiménez (coords.), Investigando en Contenidos de Vanguardia (pp. 263-278).   Gedisa.

  • Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., & Svartvik, J. (1985). A comprehensive grammar of the English language. Longman.

  • Torrado Mariñas, L. (2011). Definite article use in the IL of Spanish speakers: A multi-dimensional approach. Miscelánea: A Journal of English and American Studies, 43, 87-105.

bottom of page