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Two Secrets To Help You Use "The" Naturally

Kevin Naglich
Founder, Deliberate English

"The" is the most common word in the English language. At first glance, it may seem super easy to use. 

We aren't going to master every nuance in one post, but we will take a look at a couple common problems and work on solving them so you can get one step closer to more natural-sounding speech.

The Basic Rule

You already know that "the" is the article used to refer to a specific noun. We'd say things like:

  • He is the smartest boy because only one can be the smartest.
  • The equator, because it's a specific location on the globe.
  • I stopped by the church because I went to a specific building.

With that in mind, let's focus on two common problems that you're likely to face. 

Problem #1 - Nouns Pretending to Be Adjectives

Do you think the word "the" fits in this sentence?

I think the English is important.

This one was pretty easy, and the answer is no, it doesn't. ❌

Here, English is the noun, and it's a language. You know that there's a rule that says don't use "the" with the names of languages.

Great.

So then this sentence should be pretty easy. Does "the" fit here?

I want to learn everything about the English language.

Surprisingly, it does. I want to learn everything about the English language. ✅

The difference between the first sentence and this one is that English is actually an adjective that modifies language. That means our rule about not using "the" with the names of languages is no longer relevant. 

Instead, we have to look at the actual noun, which is languages, and ask if we are talking about them in general or a specific one.

Of course, here we are talking about a specific one, English.

If English was the noun, then our original rule would apply. Now I'm referring to the name of the language directlyand we'd just say, "I want to learn everything about English."

Moving on, does "the" fit in this sentence?

I think the 60s are one of the most interesting decades.

Yes, it does! ✅

Here, 60s is a noun, and we know that there's a rule that says you should use "the" with specific amounts of time.

Easy.

So then, in this sentence, we should also use "the" right?

The show is sent in the 1970s Chicago

Nope. ❌

Again, we're contradicting that rule. Or so it seems.

Like before, in this situation 1970s is actually an adjective describing Chicago. Which Chicago? The Chicago of the 1970s.

Since 1970s is an adjective in this case, the "the" rule doesn't apply, and instead, we have to look at Chicago since it's the noun. 

The rule with cities is that we don't use "the."

Let's look at one more example.

Does "the" fit in this sentence?

I had a hard time getting on the Internet yesterday since I was on the road.

Yes. ✅

Internet is the noun, and we know we use "the" when there is only one of something. There's only one Internet.

So then, does it fit here as well?

Learning English these days requires embracing the Internet culture.

Nope, it does not. ❌

Internet in this sentence is an adjective describing culture, so the rule about there only being one of something doesn't apply. 

Instead, we look at culture, an abstract noun for which we typically don't use "the." Despite talking about Internet culture, which is a type of culture, it still isn't specific enough in English speakers' minds. We're still talking about culture in general.

To summarize, when a noun is pretending to be an adjective ignore any rules that typically apply to the noun that is pretending to be an adjective. Instead, look at the actual noun that it is describing to know what to do. (These nouns are officially known as attributive nouns)

To learn more about these types of nouns, check out my post on adjective order.

Problem #2 - Using Like to Give Examples

Take a look at this sentence. Should we use "the" here? 

I need help with the situation like below. It's really confusing.

Yes, because we're talking about a specific situation. ✅

However, there's another big problem in this sentence. I need help with the situation like... what? 

Let's look at another sentence to figure out what to do. This sentence is structured a little better. Does "the" fit here?

The most interesting result is that the crimes like murder and robbery decreased.

No, it doesn't. ❌

The reason why is because crimes is a general thing. We're not talking about a specific crime; we're merely talking about the category of things known as crimes.

We then use the word "like" to introduce two examples: murder and robbery.

Even though we're giving some examples, crimes still isn't specific.

If we're going to use "like" to introduce examples, the thing before the "like" is typically going to be something generic and, therefore, usually won't use a "the."

By the way, if murder and robbery are specific examples of crimes, then why don't we say "the murder" or "the robbery"?

The reason is that murder and robbery, while more specific than "crimes" are still just categories. We're not referring to a specific murder or robbery.

If we said, "He committed a lot of crimes like "the murder" of his boss," then "the" fits, because we're talking about the specific event that took place.

Looking back at our first sentence, we have a bit of a dilemma. Earlier, I said that "the" fits because we're talking about a specific situation. But now I just told you that if we're using "like" to give examples, then the first thing is typically generic.

That means we need to do one of two things here. 

On the one hand, we could get rid of the "like" altogether and say,

I need help with the situation below. It's really confusing.

This now means that we are talking about one specific situation that I'm going to explain below, perhaps in an email. 

On the other hand, if we want to use "like" to give examples, we need to make "situation" generic. To do so, we get rid of "the" and make it plural. Now we're talking about many situations, like the situation below.

Of course, to avoid repeating ourselves, we can say "the one" below instead of "the situation" below.

I need help with situations like the one below. They're really confusing.

To recap, just because we're giving specific examples after "like", it doesn't mean the thing we are giving examples for is now specific.

Whenever you're faced with a complicated topic like this, don't get discouraged if you can't master it in a short time. Instead, be on the lookout for confusing sentences that you hear native speakers use. If you're not 100% sure of why they used or didn't use "the," then write it down and see if you can discover why, either by looking it up or asking a teacher or native speaker.

Have a good one!

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