The Problem With “The”
When learning English, it can sometimes be tricky deciding when, where, and how to use the article the. In this post, one of our LiveEnglish with Livemocha teachers, Miranda González, shows us some common mistakes and how to fix them.
Guest post by Miranda González
If you are learning English as a second (or third, or fourth) language, there’s a good chance that you think articles are a pain in the neck, regardless of your native language. As an English teacher, I have noticed that it can be particularly confusing to determine when to use the definite article “the” and when to omit the article, especially when the rules seem a bit arbitrary. Check out the ten sentences below and see if you can spot the mistakes before you read the correction and explanation.
INCORRECT: Jane is going to U.K. this summer.
CORRECT: Jane is going to the U.K. this summer.
Normally we don’t use “the” before the names of countries unless that name represents a collection of places. Examples: the United States, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates.
INCORRECT: That is one of the best books in English language.
CORRECT: That is one of the best books in the English language.
We don’t use “the” before the names of languages when they are used as nouns. However, in this case “English” is an adjective telling us which specific language, so we do need the definite article.
Bodies of water
INCORRECT: St. Lawrence river flows from the Lake Ontario to Atlantic Ocean.
CORRECT: The St. Lawrence river flows from (no article) Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean.
Here’s a tricky one: Do use “the” for the names of rivers and oceans, but not for lakes. (Again, unless it’s a collection, like the Great Lakes.)
Academics and sports
INCORRECT: The biology is Kevin’s favorite subject, and the soccer is his favorite sport.
CORRECT: (No article) Biology is Kevin’s favorite subject, and (no article) soccer is his favorite sport.
Don’t use “the” before academic subjects or sports.
INCORRECT: Would you rather be stuck in the Antarctica or Sahara Desert?
CORRECT: Would you rather be stuck in (no article) Antarctica or the Sahara Desert?
Don’t use “the” with continents, but do use “the” with deserts, forests, geographical areas, and points on the globe.
INCORRECT: Do you play saxophone?
CORRECT: Do you play the saxophone?
Do use “the” before musical instruments.
INCORRECT: Valerie can’t answer her cellphone right now because she’s in the class.
CORRECT: Valerie can’t answer her cellphone right now because she’s in (no article) class.
Don’t use an article before common expressions of place such as “home”, “work”, “school”, “bed”, “class”, “jail”, and “prison”.
Products and Holidays
INCORRECT: The Microsoft will be introducing several new products around the Christmas.
CORRECT: (No article) Microsoft will be introducing several new products around (no article) Christmas.
Don’t use “the” before the names of companies and holidays used as nouns.
Day-to-day vs. special occasions
INCORRECT: We will help you make the dinner.
CORRECT: We will help you make (no article) dinner.
Don’t use “the” before “breakfast”, “lunch”, or “dinner” when talking about everyday meals. You can use “the” when referring to a specific event. Example: The reception begins at 5. The dinner will be at 6, and the dance will begin at 8.
INCORRECT: Listening to the music is very relaxing.
CORRECT: Listening to (no article) music is very relaxing.
Don’t use “the” with a noncount or plural count noun when you are making a generalization.
Miranda is an English and Spanish teacher. Find her free English classes on Facebook every weekday at LiveEnglish with Livemocha. She currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, where she and her husband are raising two bilingual children.