Definite Article

Definite Article

The definite article is the word the.

More about the Definite Article

The definite article defines something as specific.
  • I'm the murderer.
  • (This means a specific murderer, i.e., the one previously discussed.)
The definite article contrasts with the indefinite article (a or an), which defines something as unspecific.
  • I'm a murderer.
  • (This means an unspecified murderer, i.e., not one previously discussed.)
There is more on this subject in the entry about articles. Of note, articles are classified as determiners. A determiner sits before a noun to indicate quantity, possession, specificity or definiteness. (There's an entry on determiners too.)

Why Should I Care about Definite Articles?

There are two commonly discussed issues related to definite articles.

(Issue 1) Writing a job title or an office name with a capital letter

A job title (e.g., president, judge, director) or the name of office (parliament, court, accounts section) is given a capital letter when it refers to a specific person or office (i.e., it becomes a proper noun). So, when the definite article (i.e., the) appears before such a title or name, there's a pretty good chance you'll need a capital letter.

Here’s the guidance: If the job title or office name is being used for its dictionary definition (i.e., as a common noun), then use don't use a capital letter. However, if the job title or office name nails it down to one specific person or office (i.e., used as a proper noun), then use a capital letter.
  • The King was a king among kings. [correct]
  • (Here, The King specifies an individual, but king and kings do not. They are just the dictionary definitions of the word king. In other words, the first one is a proper noun, but the other two are common nouns.)
  • She works in one of the finance offices, in the Accounts Section, I think.
  • (The term finance offices is a common noun, but Accounts Section is a proper noun.)

(Issue 2) Capitalizing the The that starts a name (e.g., The Beatles)

Some names (particularly band names) start with The (e.g., The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols). When such names appear in running text, you have a choice whether to write The (with a capital letter) or the. As there is no consensus among the leading style guides on this point, you can go with your preference. Remember, we are talking about a name in running text. In a formal list of names or a reference, you'd have to use The. It is useful to think of an opening The as being only loosely bound to its name because there will be times when you ought to drop it.
  • Did you download the Bastille album?
  • (The group is called Bastille.)
  • Did you download the The Clash album?
  • (The group is called The Clash. Logically, this would be correct, but no one would write or say it because it's far too unwieldy.)
  • Did you download the Clash album?
  • (This is the most acceptable version, but we've lost the The.)
It is worth bearing in mind that this issue could affect you with foreign names with an opening "The".
  • Gina Vitale: It's called "The La Trattoria".
    Michael Felgate: "The La Trattoria" means The The Trattoria.
    Gina Vitale: I know.
  • (An extract from the 1999 Hugh Grant film Mickey Blue Eyes)
With a bit more clarity of thought, the owner of "The La Trattoria" would probably have registered it as "La Trattoria".
  • Does it disturb anyone else that "The Los Angeles Angels" baseball team translates directly as "The The Angels Angels"? (Unknown)

Key Points

  • A job title (e.g., President) or an office name (e.g., Parliament) is written with a capital letter when it specifies a unique person or office (i.e., is not just the dictionary definition of that word). When such a name does specifically refer to a unique person or office, it will very likely be preceded by the.
  • When a name starts with The (e.g., The Who), you can write the Who or The Who as you think looks best (when it's in flowing text).
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