If I write kinda fairytale and let's say I write about one concrete snowman and one specific fish, should I write 'the snowman' and 'the fish' every time? Or is it understood that I still mean this one concrete snowman if I just write 'snowman'?

Very often the same character repeats in that tale...

  • Concrete snowman? Snowman is made of snow. What is concrete doing there? Anyway, it might engage your readers.
    – lee
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 13:19
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    @lee I do not know Melissa's mother tongue, but for example in German, the word konkret means specific, so possibly a false friend here. Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 20:09
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    That's a meaning in English too. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/concrete Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 20:54
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    "The" is the most common word in English. Don't worry about using it a lot!
    – alephzero
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 17:00
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    Please show an example sentence where you feel you would want to drop the.
    – J...
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 18:17

4 Answers 4


If you want to look at an example of this, I suggest looking up Aesop's fables. They are relatively short, are easy to find online for free, and most of them feature animals as the characters. Throughout the story, each animal is referred to as "the [animal]" numerous times, and it sounds natural. If the animal is described using "a/an" the first time, this becomes "the" for all of the subsequent references, assuming that the story is referring to that same individual (not a different individual of the same species of animal).

For an example, you can refer to the story of "The Tortoise and the Hare" at this link: http://read.gov/aesop/025.html. The first reference to the hare is "A hare," indicating that this animal is new to the reader and has not been described previously. All later references to the hare use "the hare." For the tortoise, the first reference calls him "the tortoise," and so do all later references. To me this might mean that the tortoise has already appeared in another story earlier in this collection, such that the reader would know this is "the" tortoise, meaning the same one that we are familiar with from an earlier story in this book. If the author wrote "A tortoise" in the middle of this story, it would give the impression that this was a new, second tortoise being introduced in the story. And if the author had written just "Hare" or "Tortoise" without "a" or "the," it would sound like that was that individual's name. It's like the difference between saying, "A man walked down the street" versus "Joseph walked down the street." Saying simply "Man walked down the street" would not be correct unless the person's name were "Man," which is possible but not likely. (I once had a terrible, awful, dreadful boss whose first name was "Man," so you never know...)

  • 7
    Or if "Man" were referring to all of humankind, and "walked down the street" was some bizarre metaphor, or perhaps referring to the first time when a member of mankind did so, in the same way as "Man walked on the moon"... but the point stands that none of these meanings are probably what OP intended :D
    – Muzer
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 22:50

Nouns in English pretty much always come with some kind of determiner attached - either the ones that indicate exactly what you're talking about and whether they're known to the listener (a, the, my, this, those) or the ones that describe the amount of things (some, many, two, every, more, which). They determine what you're referring to, so the listener knows if you have something specific in mind, or if you're switching your focus to something else (or maybe something new).

Some situations where they're not used include:

  • plurals and uncountable nouns, when you're speaking generally - cats are cute (in general), these cats are naughty (the cats right here). Coffee is great, etc.
  • pronouns - these are already standing in for something specific that the listener understands. But you can use the amount determiners to talk about parts of that thing, e.g. both of them, some of it.
  • names - similar to pronouns, because names are generally referring to someone specific there's no need to add a determiner. This is why if you have a noun where there should be a determiner, like the snowman, but you omit it, the result sounds like a name! "The whewfdnfbsdf is here" sounds like a thing, "whewfdnfbsdf is here" sounds like the name of... something... (that was just random typing by the way, the point is the structure of the sentence is what makes the word sound like one thing or another)

Sometimes a name can include a determiner word, like The Boss, but usually you can't tell if someone's saying The Boss or the boss until you definitely hear the whole thing used as a name. And you can see determiners attached to names in some situations:

  • using the to refer to a specific group of people with the same name (usually a family, e.g. the Kardashians)
  • using a to refer to someone or something unknown that has a particular name, e.g. a Mr Smith is here to see you (a person named Mr Smith)
  • using the quantity determiners to define a specific group based on names, and specify a quantity of it - every Jenny I've ever met has been really nice

there are probably some more cases I haven't thought of, but hopefully that's a helpful overview! The short version is: you usually have to use a determiner, and if you omit it it will probably sound like a name instead.


Yes you should always add "the", if you want to specifically say somebody.

If you say:

And then snowman ...

Would sound strange, you need to say:

And then the snowman ...

Without the "the", would mean a general snowman.

Ah and thanks to @KateBunting, she mentions that if you make the first letter capital (treating it as the character's name), you wouldn't need the "the", here is an example:

And then Snowman ...

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    Unless you give it a capital letter and treat it as a name. Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 12:03
  • @KateBunting Oh yeah forgot about that, edited mine Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 12:05
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    I meant that the writer might call the character Snowman! Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 12:07
  • @KateBunting Oh so sorry, I misunderstood you, yeah didn't think of that too. edited Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 12:08

Archetypes and Eponymous Names

As a rule, you can't simply drop the definite or indefinite articles when they're required. There are other great answers here that address the standard grammar rules involved, but there's an edge case that no one's covered yet: fables, fairy tales, allegories, and myths can sometimes feature eponymous characters where the noun is actually a proper name. This is especially common in Native American stories and myths. Consider this example:

Coyote is a bad hunter who never kills anything. Once he watched Eagle hunting rabbits, catching one after another - more rabbits than he could eat.

Coyote thought, "I'll team up with Eagle so I can have enough meat." Coyote is always up to something.

In this art form, Coyote and Eagle are proper names used by the story's archetypes. Because they are the names of specific characters, they are not preceded by a definite or indefinite article.

Most native speakers will not generally notice high frequencies of "the" in a well-formed sentence (see The Cat in the Hat for a sterling example), but will definitely notice if it's routinely missing. If you're concerned about too much repetition of the article + noun, though, you should replace it with a pronoun (e.g. he, she, it, they) when the antecedent is clear, or give your characters proper names after introducing them in your story. As a somewhat contrived example:

A snowman met a fish in the river. The fish was a trout. "Salutations, Trout," said the snowman.

"Hello, snowman," replied Trout.

"Let me introduce myself properly. I'm Frosty."

"Nice to meet you, Frosty," Trout responded politely.

Based on the story's progression:

  • "A fish" => "the fish" as the story gains specificity.
  • "A trout => "Trout" as a proper name or form of address (not something you'd likely see outside of fiction writing) because a character gave him an eponymous name.
  • "Snowman" as a term of address, which doesn't need an article => "Frosty" which is the snowman's proper name and therefore doesn't need an article.

Unless you're using it incorrectly, no one will think "the fish" or "the snowman" is redundant, but stylistically you should definitely explore ways to vary your descriptions and attributions throughout the story for artistic effect. Just don't drop the articles willy-nilly.

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