I really have hard times with the article 'the' because in my native Russian language there's no such thing.

So, often when I'm speaking of something I have to decide whether I should put the article 'the' in a sentence or not.

And there are moments when I just don't know what would be grammatically correct so I just choose at random.

So a question arises, at those moments every time when I'm not sure if an article 'the' is needed I better to put it or not?

In other words is it better to have an article 'the' where it is not needed or no article where it is needed?

  • 1
    Like what is better - 'I have visited the stack overflow website today' or 'Questions on this website are useful'?
    – turik97
    Sep 28, 2020 at 7:50
  • Hello Turik, welcome to EL&U. Do you have the same problem with the indefinite article ('a'' or 'an') or does an equivalent of that exist in Russian?
    – BoldBen
    Sep 28, 2020 at 8:27
  • @BoldBen Hello, not perfect but I think I'm pretty confident in those. It has simple mechanics, if you mean a thing you just put the article 'a'. But with the article 'the' it's more harder because you have to decide by yourself. And we don't have indefinite articles in Russian.
    – turik97
    Sep 28, 2020 at 8:38
  • Like for example a joke from Musk 'who controls the memes controls the universe' why he said 'the memes' if he didn't mean any specific memes, just memes, any of them?
    – turik97
    Sep 28, 2020 at 8:42
  • In this example "the memes" means roughly "all memes", so it is specific.
    – Peter
    Sep 28, 2020 at 12:21

2 Answers 2


The difference is to do with whether you are talking about specific things or things in general.

In the case of memes if you are talking about memes in general you would omit the article as I have just done, and you can refer to a subset of memes without the article as well (you can talk about 'cat memes' for example without using the article) but if you want to talk about a specific meme (say the flat earth meme) you use the article. This is generally true, if you are talking about a single thing you use the definite article (unless any one item will do as in "I would like an apple please" where you use the indefinite article), the problem only really arises with plurals.

It gets more difficult when you are talking about multiple things as in the Elon Musk quote "Who controls the memes controls the Universe." because it can be difficult to decide whether you are talking specifically or generally. In Musk's case he was talking about all the memes that exist or might exist but he was talking about them in a specific way rather than a general way. It would also have been possible for him to say "Who controls memes controls the Universe" and it would still make sense but it would not have been quite as powerful and there would have been a mismatch between the general memes and the specific Universe.

In general I would suggest that you follow your instinct but, if in doubt, use the definite article rather than omitting it, there are more cases where you are talking about specific things than general ones. Also keep listening to and reading English and your instinct will improve.

Sorry I can't help with a rule, I don't think that there is one.


In this case, Musk was modifying a quote that would be recognizable to most sci-fi fans:

He who controls the spice controls the universe.

Source: Dune, Frank Herbert

Musk has substituted “memes” for “spice” as an in-joke. It has a specific meaning (for those who catch the reference) that is somewhat different from what the literal words mean.

When modifying popular quotes like this, keeping the reference recognizable is more important than grammatical correctness, so don’t look too closely at what Musk said. Look at what Herbert said, and then see how it applies to Musk’s context.

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