Please do not laugh, it is truly hard. Trying to come up with one strict rule about definiteness in English (I wasn't able to find one) I collected some information and ask to check it out. Does that work?

We use THE when there is only one possible variant OR the noun following a definite article is well known to both ourselves and the listener.

So saying I want to show you the photo of Jane and me. would be appropriate either when the listener is familiar with the photo OR there is only one. Even if the listener doesn't know what photo you're talking about, the uniqueness of that photo forces us to take THE.

After hearing that, the listener unable to identify the photo decides that there is no more than one, therefore, there is no apparent reason to ask which one. He either identified it OR it is unique.

We MAY have to add a qualifying clause with OF (or another preposition), but that's not necessary. Uncle Vernon sat back down, breathing like a winded rhinoceros and watching Harry closely out of THE corners OF his small, sharp eyes.

In this example, THE relates to OF. All that goes after OF just makes clear what corners we mean and so creates uniqueness. It wouldn't be coherent to ask 'Which corners of his small, sharp eyes?' Concluding, it is not a must to take THE in sentences with a clarifying clause (like Cars are a major source of pollution in cities.), but sometimes the two parts are closely related. (like The life of a polar explorer.) Another example of that would be Of THE 2 testing programs I USE the 860 Pro has outscored everything else I've ever tested.

Does that make sense?

I'll be glad to hear If someone has some suggestions to read about the topic.

  • I think that is a very good summary. Your clause "well known to both ourselves and the listener" is a key determinant.
    – djna
    Oct 4, 2019 at 12:22
  • How about this: ''Of THE 2 testing programs I USE the 860 Pro has outscored everything else I've ever tested.'' The programs are unknown to the reader. It wasn't previously said too. Oct 4, 2019 at 13:55
  • This is getting subtle! The actual information you are sharing with the listener is "the 860 Pro ...". We have an introductory phrase which falls under the "only one variant" phrase: "The two testing programs I use". If later you were asked to show them you would unambiguously present the two programs.
    – djna
    Oct 4, 2019 at 16:41

1 Answer 1


Does that make sense?

Yes. It sounds like you have summarized the definite article "the" pretty well.

Does it work?


It's funny to read this type of discussion because for native speakers of languages with articles they are something you learn at the ages of 0-4 years old, and you don't think about them or talk about them much. Yet, for other language speakers they are a mystery.

I'll be glad to hear If someone has some suggestions to read about the topic.

Since you have asked about reading more...

A google search for:

understanding english articles

yields results on the first page such as "Articles: A Complete Grammar Guide", "A(n)/The: Help Understanding the Definite & Indefinite Article", "Master Definite and Indefinite Articles in English Grammar with These Five Tips", etc.

  • Thanks, Sam, but no one of these guides doesn't provide an example like if we're sitting in a room and I say ''that is the money that I have to buy some coffee'' then you immediately now that the amount of money I'm ready to spend to buy some coffee if LIMITED to just that amount and if I say ''that is money that I have to buy some coffee'' It means that I might have more money to buy some coffee in my car and we are not restricted by what I have right now for that purpose. Oct 14, 2019 at 17:56
  • 1
    @ThroughTheWonders , your example about coffee makes sense. This results from the difference between specific-(definite) and non-specific-(indefinite) which is what the articles "the" and "a" are indicating.
    – Sam
    Oct 14, 2019 at 21:34
  • ''Then I designed a game for Atari called Breakout, and that was a really incredible product. That was just so neat, to have my name associated with a product that actually came out in the field in video games.'' you know that it is just one of the products that came out in this field and if I take THE we know there was ONLY one product that came out in the field in video games, right? Oct 14, 2019 at 23:12
  • 1
    @ThroughTheWonders , that's right.
    – Sam
    Oct 15, 2019 at 3:26
  • 1
    @ThroughTheWonders , that's right. They could say either "a decision" or "the decision". With "the" it's adding more emphasis about the decision, whereas "a" means "the company makes many various decisions".
    – Sam
    Oct 15, 2019 at 14:16

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