ADRIAN DOFF presents and explains this key point of grammar with notes on a short dialogue. Read the dialogue and the explanations and try the exercises below.
Dialogue and explanations (please click on the arrow to expand)
Three friends are playing a quiz game.
Rachel: Right! I’ll ask you a question, and the first person to answer the question (1) gets a point. OK?
Rachel: The first question is on history (2). What nation invented fireworks (2)?
Boris: The Chinese (3).
Rachel: Yes. One point for you, Boris. OK, here’s another one. Who invented the telescope (4)?
Elena: Er... Galileo?
Boris: I know. It was Hans Lippershey. He was Dutch.
Elena: How did you know that?
Boris: I saw a programme about him on TV (5). Galileo went to visit him and then used his idea.
Elena: I was always useless at history at school (6). How about a question on music?
Rachel: OK. Who sang and played the piano (7) at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997?
Elena: How should I know that? I was only three years old at the time. That’s not about music. It’s another history question.
- Use the before a noun that one already knows about. (Rachel says “a question” and then “the question”.)
- Don’t use the before uncountable or plural nouns (“history”, “fireworks”) that you mean “in general”.
- Use the with some nationalities: “the Chinese”, “the English” (= Chinese people, English people).
- Use the before singular countable nouns (“the telescope”) to talk about a class of things “in general”.
- Leave out the in the phrase on TV, but say “on the radio”. (See page 44: “Whether people watch it on TV, listen to it on the radio or check it online, everyone is interested in the weather forecast.”)
- Leave out the in phrases like “at school”, “at home” or “at work”.
- Use the with musical instruments (“...who played the piano”).
before nouns that have been mentioned earlier, or that are already known about:
- I’ll put the beer in the cellar.
before singular countable nouns, when talking about a general category:
- The computer has changed our lives.
with names of rivers, oceans, seas and regions:
- the Thames, the Mediterranean, the Middle East
with musical instruments (after “play”):
- play the piano, play the guitar
- It was the best holiday I’ve ever had.
Don’t use “the”...
before uncountable and plural nouns, when talking about a general category:
I love nature.
Computers have changed our lives.
in some fixed expressions with prepositions:
on TV, at home, at work, at school, on holiday, in bed, in hospital (UK)
Beyond the basics
You can sometimes use the to talk about a group or category of people, to form plural nouns from adjectives:
The gap between the rich and the poor (= rich people and poor people) is growing.
Now, test your knowledge with the exercises below.