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The use of the definite article

§ 191. The definite article implies that the speaker or the writer presents a person, a thing or an abstract notion as known to the listener or the reader, either from his general knowledge, or from the situation, or from the context. Hence, the two main functions of the definite article are specifying and generic.

§ 192. The definite article in its specifying function serves to single out an object or a group of objects from all the other objects (things, persons, animals, abstract notions) of the same kind. The specification is carried out by means of (1) a restrictive attribute, of (2) the preceding context, (3) the situation or (4) the meaning of the noun.


1) A restrictive attribute is most useful in singling out or individualizing an object (such attributes are also called specifying or limiting). It may be expressed by a single word, a prepositional phrase, a participial phrase, or by a clause, all functioning as postmodifiers.


Somebody moved in the room above.

I’m convinced Davis is the man we are looking for (the very man).

The students in the next room are taking an examination.

That was the end of my first journey into the enchantment of the past.

The man standing by the window is my uncle.

I said nothing to Mr Smith. I think he was already rehearsing the story he would fell to Mrs Smith.


There are also postmodifying attributes which refer the object they modify to a class of similar objects, and in this case they require the indefinite article before the modified noun.

A letter written in pencil is difficult to read.

A letter which is written in pencil is difficult to read.


In like fashion premodifying attributes, especially expressed by adjectives, have either descriptive force in which case they do not influence the use of articles, or a restrictive force due to their meaning. Those are the limiting adjectives very, right, left, wrong, only, one, opposite, last, next (following), the pronominal adjective same, ordinal numerals. Their meaning specifies the object well enough to exclude a possibility of choice or change within a class.


We got into the wrong train.

Are we on the right road?

He is the only man for this position.

Morning light... touched the opposite seat.

That’s the great Rita. The one and only Rita.

My first job was not a success. But the second job was a sensational success.


Apparent exceptions to the rule are caused by a certain shift in the meaning of premodifiers, which may acquire a new qualitative tinge. Thus an only child means a child who has no brothers or sisters, a first impression or a first attempt has its own qualitative peculiarities, a last look is a farewell look, a second, a third, a tenth means one more, another. In such cases the classifying force of the article prevails. See the examples below, the last of which also suggests reference to a class, namely to the class of books in their first edition.


I haven’t got four brothers. I’m an only son.

Alec turned up as if for a last look at the retreating figure.

It was a good first impression.

What made him spot Boot? It’s a sixth sense

He picked up a first edition of “The Torrents of Spring”.



There is no article if the numeral is part of apropername: Fifth Avenue, Sixty-Sixth Street.


2) An object or a group of objects may be specified by reference to file preceding context (backward reference). This use of the definite article is qualified as anaphoric. The noun with the definite article may be a mere repetition of the noun mentioned before (see examples a) and b) below); it may be referred to the words or statement just mentioned (ex. c, d), or may be a final statement prompted by the context (e):


a) My wife always had a passion for owls. The passion’s grown since our marriage.


b) Three little kittens lost their mittens... The three little kittens they found their mittens.


c) ‘My wife has left me.’ Dirk could hardly get the words out.


d) Dainty spokealoud. The habit was certainly growing.


e) My daughter’s getting married at the week-end, but I don't think I shall go.

—You don’t like the man?


3) One of the most usual ways of singling out an object or a group of objects is situational specification. Though the object is mentioned for the first time, no attribute or context is necessary for the speaker (or the writer) to point it out and for the listener (or the reader) to understand what object is meant.

After visiting a theatre we may say: I liked the acting and I enjoyed the music too. After a flower exhibition: The flowers were splendid. In many everyday situations: Go to the kitchen. Open the door. Pass the butter. Keep off the grass.

When we say Let’s go to the river, depending on the place we live in, it may be the Neva, the Thames, the Amazon, etc. With reference to a certain school we may say: The bell rang and the teacher came in, or Miss, Smith came in.

If the situational reference is not clear enough to the listener, the speaker should employ another specifier as in the following: “Hilary, would you mind if we fixed the day? ” “What day? ” “The day for me and Crystal to get married.”


4) The definite article in its specifying function is used with unique objects or notions. They are the sun, the moon, the earth, the sea, the world, the universe, the horizon, the equator, the south, the north, the west, the east.

The sun sank below the horizon.

The sky had cleared...

The moon is the heavenly body that moves round the earth.

He sailed round the world.


The use of the definite article with nouns denoting unique objects is similar to the situational use, only unique objects suggest situations on a larger scale. Nouns denoting unique objects are also similar to proper nouns, especially to those originated from common nouns, such as the Tower, the Hermitage, the British Museum.

Though in the majority of cases proper nouns are used without an article, thanks to their origin, various historical processes and traditional usage, there are a number of proper nouns which are preceded by the definite article (for more examples see the list in § 194).

Nouns denoting unique objects may be preceded by the indefinite article in its classifying function when some aspect or phase of the object is meant or the word is used figuratively.


It’s a high sky tonight, big and pale.

The sun shone in an unclouded sky.

Night had fallen and I was guided by a full moon.

She in turn had discovered in Cal Finley a world of which she had never dreamed before.

It has always been a dream of her life.

§ 193. The definite article in its generic function refers the following noun to the whole class of objects of the same kind.

The lion is the king of the animals.

The trout - oh the trout – he’s the real king of fish.

Only the poet or the saint can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipations that lilies will

reward his labour.

Since 1925 Mr Warren has made an outstanding contribution to American letters in the fields of

education, poetry, criticism, and the novel.


The generic article suggests a very high degree of abstraction in a count noun, the next stage of abstraction being achieved by the absence of the articles, as with the words man and woman when used in a generic meaning.

Woman is physically weaker than man.

This was more than man can be expected to bear.


Observe the difference between the generic use of the word man without an article (the class as a whole) and the generic use of the same word with the indefinite article (a representative of the class) in this quotation:

Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.


In many cases either the generic definite or the generic indefinite article may be used. The generic definite article expresses the idea of the whole class, whereas the indefinite article emphasises the idea of any individual’s belonging to the class, e.g. The horse is a domestic animal. A horse is a domestic animal. The generic indefinite article is often preferable when a detailed description follows: A person who prepares somebody else’s writings for a publisher is called the editor. A crane is a large bird with a long neck and beak.


There are certain contexts, however, where the use of the generic indefinite article is logically impossible, as in:

The tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.

The lion is the king of the animals.

The atom was known to the ancient Greeks.


Singular nouns preceded by the generic definite or the generic indefinite article correspond to plural nouns with no article.


The tiger lives in the jungle. Tigers live in the jungle.


The generic use of the definite article occurs with nouns denoting social classes (both singular and plural forms), for example: the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, the gentry, the workers, the public, the peasants, the intelligentsia. The same applies to people belonging to some school or movement in literature or art, for example: the romanticists, the impressionists.

The use of the definite article before substantivized adjectives in their collective or abstract meaning is also generic: the poor =- all who are poor, the strong = all who are strong, the obvious = all that is obvious, the beautiful = all who are beautiful or all that is beautiful, beauty:


Take Charley, for example. He has associated with the learned, the gentle, the literate and the reasonable

both in France and America. Three things will never be believed - the true, the probable and the logical.

§ 194. Set expressions with the definite article:




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