On the General Rules for Articles page, you learned how “a,” “an,” and “the” are often used in sentences, and what meaning they convey. The trouble is that there are many exceptions to these rules, and specific cases which follow different rules. Many of these exceptions are idiomatic, and some are “sub-rules,” which contradict the “general rules.” Let’s go through some of these special cases:
“The” of Position
When we talk about the position of something, we use “the.” (the end, the back of, the front of, the center of, the middle of)
- I spilled ketchup on the front of my shirt.
- Can you move your car to the back of the house?
- I’m in the middle of something, can you call back later?
“The” Room, “The” Household Item
We often use “the” to refer to large household items and rooms, even if it is the first time it is mentioned or if we aren’t at home. (the oven, the stove, the carpet, the fridge, the kitchen, the bedroom, the driveway, the yard, the grass)
- I was just mowing the lawn.
- What’s in the fridge?
- I have to get home and clean the kitchen before my roommate gets back.
“The” for Leisure Activities, Entertainment, Travel, and Shopping
We often use “the” when referring to places we go to have fun, travel, or shop. (the movies, the theater, the beach, the park, the bus stop, the train station, the airport, the hardware store, the grocery store, the salon, the gym)
- Do you need a ride to the bus stop?
- Let’s go to the movies tonight.
- I can stop by the grocery store and the hardware store on my way home.
Sometimes we can use either “the” or “a” to refer to a city’s transportation system. In these cases, “the” refers more to “the concept of the transportation system” and “a” refers to any particular vehicle. In reality, they mean much the same thing:
- I take the bus to work.
- I take a bus to work.
You can use either “the” or “a” with: the/a bus, the/a train, the/a trolley, the/a ferry.
Some transportation methods only go with either “the” or “a.”
- I took the subway to get here.
- Let’s catch a taxi home.
- She got a cab to the airport and boarded a plane.
- I drive a car to work.
- The child just learned how to ride a bike.
“A/an” as a Synonym of “Per”
- I go there twice a day.
- I get thirty miles a gallon in my new car.
- This new diet says you can lose three pounds a week.
“The” or [ ] with Playing Musical Instruments
In British English, you always use “the” before an instrument when you are talking about the ability to play it. In American English, it can go either way. If you are talking about a musical instrument as an object, use an article based on the general rules.
- An American to a British person: “Nigel, do you play [ ] piano?”
- A British person to an American: “No, Steve, I’ve never played the piano.”
- I bought a cello today.
- American: “She can play [ ] trombone, too?”
“Belonging” to Institutions
When talking about institutions like school, college, prison, or church, don’t use an article when you are expressing that someone is a part of one of these institutions.
- I went to [ ] church when I was a kid.
- Is he still in [ ] prison?
- When are you going to [ ] college?
- I have to pick the kids up from [ ] school.
If you want to talk about an individual school, college, prison, or church, this is more of a “regular noun” and follows the rules for general article usage.
- Deborah went to a new church last Sunday.
- I’m trying to find a college I really like.
- Are you going to try to work at the prison outside of town?
Note: British vs. American usage:
In the UK and Canada, “hospital” and “university” are both considered institutions that don’t take an article. In American English, both these words take articles, and “college” is used instead of “university” to describe “the state of attending an institution of higher education for four years after high school.”
- UK and Canada: “She’s in hospital.”
- US: “She’s in the hospital.”
- UK and Canada: “I’m going to university.”
- US: “I’m going to college.”
“The” with Proper Nouns
We use “the” before proper nouns in the following categories: rivers (the Amazon), mountain ranges (the Rockies), oceans and seas (the South China Sea), deserts (the Sonora), groups of islands (The Bahamas), hotels (the Holiday Inn), political bodies (the Communist Party), points on the globe (the Equator), museums (The Museum of Modern Art), institutions (The Center for Disease Control), and countries whose names include plural nouns or political terms (The United Arab Emirates).
- I’m traveling to the United Kingdom this year.
- The Nile floods every year.
- Are you a member of the Democratic Party?
“[ ]” with Proper Nouns
Don’t use an article before proper nouns in the following categories: people’s names, cities and towns, countries (except involving political regions and plural nouns), individual lakes, individual mountains, individual islands, beaches, streets, public squares, stadiums, hospitals, parks, churches, temples, universities, colleges, languages, religions, days, months, and holidays.
- Lucy speaks [ ] French.
- Is she really going to [ ] Oxford University?
- Let’s spend [ ] Christmas at your parent’s house.
Exceptions: Although universities, churches, temples, and institutions usually don’t have “the” in front of their names, “the _____ of _______” structure is very common.
- I got a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley.
- The Temple of Artemis in Greece is very beautiful.
Diseases and Illnesses
Generally, don’t use an article in front of most diseases (malaria, cancer, AIDS, diabetes). However, a few illnesses always use “the” (the flu, the measles, the mumps, the plague).
- My mother has lived with [ ] epilepsy since she was a child.
- [ ] Smallpox has been eradicated.
- I hope I don’t get the flu.
A/an is typically used before aches, pains, growths, colds, and attacks.
- I had an operation for a tumor in my stomach.
- Harsh chemicals give me a headache.
- He had a heart attack last night.
- I think I’m coming down with a cold.
Generalizations Rule #1
Don’t use an article when you make generalizations using uncountable nouns or plural nouns.
- [ ] French fries are not a healthy food.
- [ ] Curiosity has lead to many scientific discoveries.
- I usually send [ ] flowers to my mom on Mother’s Day.
Generalizations Rule #2
However, despite what you just read above, English speakers sometimes use “the” to make generalizations about certain topics, such as animals, plants, currencies, parts of the body, and inventions. Using “the” in this way makes the noun seem very abstract, and sounds very scientific and formal. If you say “The chimpanzee is our closest living relative,” you are referring to the species of chimpanzee, not an individual one. Similarly, if you say “The wheel is the most important human invention,” you are referring to the concept of the wheel.
- The blue whale is the largest animal on Earth.
- The apple tree is native to Asia.
- The liver is a very delicate organ.
- A bee stung John on the arm.
- The yen is very strong compared to the dollar right now.
- The invention of the printing press helped bring education to the common people.
If a compass direction (north, south, east, west), “left,” or “right” follows a verb, don’t use an article.
- Let’s drive [ ] west until we reach the ocean.
- We better head [ ] south if we want to get there on time.
- Go five miles and turn [ ] right at the first stoplight.
However, if a direction word follows a preposition, use “the.”
- Our house is on the left.
- You’ll have to walk to the north a few blocks.
- The restaurant is on the east side of the street.
If you are using a compass direction to indicate a geographic or cultural region, use “the.” (Note: Also capitalize the direction word.)
- I’ve always wanted to bicycle in the South of France.
- Have you ever been to the West?
- People are more serious on the East Coast.
Comparatives and Superlatives
Nouns with Comparative adjectives in front of them (often ending in -er, such as bigger, better, farther, cleaner) follow the general usage rules, with either “a,” “an,” or no article. However, if you are comparing two things, you can use “the” before the comparative adjective.
- Between me and my brother, he is the better student.
- Both these knives are sharp, but this one is the sharper of the two.
When using superlative adjectives (usually ending in -est), use “the.” (the biggest, the worst, the best, the most amazing, the meanest).
- People who say high school was the happiest time of their lives are crazy.
- He’s the kindest man I’ve ever met.
- That was the most food I’ve ever eaten in one sitting.
Groups of People
You can add “the” before certain adjectives to indicate that you are talking about groups of people. (The poor, the rich, the desperate, the French, the hungry.)
- The church set up a soup kitchen to feed the hungry.
- The French are generally very warm and open people.
However, some nationalities, particularly ending with “-an,” don’t take a “the” when you make generalizations about them, and are pluralized with an “s.” (Americans, Germans, Italians, Mexicans, Hawaiians)
- Mexicans celebrate a girl’s 15th birthday with a big party.
- Americans eat too much fast food.
Some time expressions use “the,” and others don’t.
- In the morning
- In the afternoon
- In the evening
- The day after tomorrow
- The day before yesterday
- During the day
- During the night
- The Fall
- The Winter
- The Spring
- The Summer
Without an article:
- At dawn
- At dusk
- At night
- At midnight
- At noon
- All day
- All night
In addition to everything already listed here, a lot of English idioms use articles in particular ways. This is by no means a complete list:
- In the nick of time
- A chip on his shoulder
- Tie the knot
- A piece of cake
- A slap on the wrist
- The long and the short of it
- At the drop of a hat
- The last straw
- Beat around the bush
- Costs an arm and a leg
- Hit the nail on the head
- On the ball
- Straight from the horse’s mouth
This is a lot of information and can definitely be overwhelming the first time through. However, once you familiarize yourself with these rules and exceptions, you will begin to hear and recognize articles used in these ways. Gradually, they will start to sound natural to you, and using them wrong will “just sound weird.” At that point, you will be experiencing them more like a native speaker.