I read an article that states that the definite article "the" is an adjective before nouns

the ball

and is an adverb before superlative adjectives

the best player

What is its type (part of speech) in this sentence:

I have the red pen.

  • 1
    Welcome! Can you edit your question to tell us what you're thinking already? Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 21:47
  • When you have the red pen and not just any red pen, that's using the as just another adjective. Still, this is great English language learner question, and belongs on such a site. Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 22:08
  • If the sentence is The nice cats are playing in the wide garden. Is the 1st the an adjective?
    – noor noor
    Commented Nov 9, 2021 at 13:36
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    This is a simplistic assignation of POS (part of speech) now considered wrong rather than an alternative analysis (though some dictionaries may perpetuate the error). Articles (a/an, the, and possibly others) are often considered a subset of the determiner class (though some consider that they form a distinct class). You can find very helpful information on determiners on ELU and at say Nordquist (though numerals are arguably best not considered as determiners) and Wikipedia. Commented Nov 9, 2021 at 14:32
  • @EdwinAshworth Seems to me like this is the objective answer that the question needs (even if there's subjectivity on a topic, an objective answer can report the subjectivity). Would you mind turning it into one (maybe making sure that it's framed in a way that's still useful to users who aren't clear what superlatives are)? Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 14:38

3 Answers 3


The classic model of English I grew up with divided everything into 8 parts of speech:

  • Nouns (things, places, objects)

  • Pronouns (take the place of a noun)

  • Verbs (actions)

  • Adjectives (modify nouns)

  • Adverbs (modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs)

  • Conjunctions (connect constituents, phrases, or clauses)

  • Prepositions (placed before a noun and express a relation)

  • Interjections (single word phrases that express exclamation or a conversational flow disruption)

Using this model, articles are adjectives, because they modify nouns.

the definite article "the" is an adjective before nouns (the ball) and is an adverb before superlative adjective (the best player)

The "out of date" 8-parts-of-speech-model is good to get someone working with English who is learning it--either someone who doesn't natively speak the language or a native speaker who isn't aware of the concepts.

However everything in English does not neatly fit in those 8 categories--in particular, adverbs tend to be a "throwaway" category, there's no talk about words that straddle between noun and verb ("verbals"), and things like the notion of determiners is an important one in English.

But even with the "out of date" classical model above, this is wrong. The always "modifies" a noun. It doesn't just modify the next word after it. Think of this sentence:

I ate the spicy hot food.

Spicy tells you an attribute about food. It does not modify hot just because it comes right before hot. I ate the hot spicy food means the same exact thing.


The text you read is incorrect and misleading. When used as an article, the word the is never an adjective (nor an adverb either).

It is simply an article, full stop. That is its part of speech. It does not describe a noun. It determines a noun.

In the case of a noun phrase involving an adjective in the superlative degree, that leading the is unaltered in its function: it remains determinative of its noun. The superlative adjective is a red herring.


The text you read is correct. The OED gives "the" as an adjective, a determiner (Determiners are a specialised subset of adjectives) and as an adverb.

The: A. adj. Definite article (determiner).**

I. Referring to an individual item (or items).

Marking an item as having been mentioned before or as already known, or as contextually particularized (e.g. They escaped in a car. The car was later found abandoned or I had some in a jar but it all leaked out through the lid.

It also has the entry:

the, adv.

1.a. Used with a following comparative adjective or adverb to emphasize the effect of circumstances indicated by the context. The circumstances are sometimes expressed by a phrase introduced by for, e.g. he is much the better for it, he looks the better for his holiday.

See also all adv. 7a, none adv. 1b, so adv. and conj. 39d,

1883 Law Times 27 Oct. 425/1 What student is the better for mastering these futile distinctions?

1938 Manch. Guardian 8 Mar. 8/1 This record is the more remarkable when we remember the defective eyesight by which..Dr. Garvie has been handicapped.

2014 K. Fforde Christmas Feast 289 She wouldn't really be any the wiser.

All words have some meaning or inflect other words with meaning.

  • Hey downvoters, care to leave a comment about why? This is the only answer so far with a reference, and if the OED isn't a good reference, I don't know what is.
    – gotube
    Commented Nov 9, 2021 at 21:41
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    You're right that the OED lists the as an adjective, with determiner in parenthesis. But in its entry for detereminer it does not say that a determiner is a kind of adjective. It does give a quotation from 1933 that makes that claim, but the two quotes from 1961 both imply that a determiner is not an adjective.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 9, 2021 at 23:12
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    @gotube The OED is the best authority when it comes to endorsing statements about word meanings, and very good on etymology. It has failed to keep up with advances in the study of syntax and POS assignation, and must here defer to McCawley, CGEL, Aarts etc. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 16:02
  • @EdwinAshworth from the entry "the (adv.) in OED: This entry has been updated (OED Third Edition, June 2018; most recently modified version published online September 2021). I am quoting the online version.
    – user81561
    Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 19:13
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    Recent updates are no guarantee that necessary changes have been made. POS is dealt with more accurately by CGEL, which is written by grammarians. On p538: 'This book follows the practice of most work in modern linguistics in recognising a primary part-of-speech distinction between adjectives and determinatives. ... There are ... strong grounds for distinguishing the and a from adjectives at the primary level of classification.' This is reiterated for determinatives v adverbs on page 564, with reasoned analysis. Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 19:34

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