The definite article the is implied to point to something specific rather than indeterminate. It is clear that the nouns that have explanations after them should be preceded by the, like in

Walking around Prague I saw the house that was painted red.

However, if a noun is preceded by an adjective, which, by default, specifies the noun, should the be used, like in

Walking around Prague I saw the red house.


Or should a be used in both cases, because (painted) red is not specific enough for the definite article to be used? Would it be different for

Walking around Prague I saw the house where Queen Elisabeth lived.

Walking around Prague I saw the Queen Elisabeth's house.


What are the criteria that determine how specific is a noun, noun phrase or noun-adjective combination? I'm especially interested in the guidlines for scientific/academic writing.

Any help would be appreciated.

  • 1
    I don't know whether scientific/academic writing is in some way different as far as articles 'a' and 'the' are concerned. The rules I believe are the same as anywhere. For instance, in your last sentence the article 'the' is only needed if a particular Queen Elisabeth's house (one of several) was discussed prior to that sentence. If there is only one such house in Prague, no article is require at all. Possessive defines the house unequivocally. Aug 19, 2015 at 14:31
  • 1
    Same goes to the use of the definite article with "house that was painted" or "red house": if that house was discussed before, then 'the' distinguishes that particular house among other red houses. Aug 19, 2015 at 14:33
  • @choster: That's just not entirely accurate. In cases of use 'the' with possessive, it's possible that 'the' modifies not the noun, but the source of the possessive. "The child's bag" = "the bag of the child". Aug 19, 2015 at 14:46
  • @VictorBazarov Ah, you are right, the other factor is that Queen Elisabeth is a proper noun. I'll revisit when I have more time.
    – choster
    Aug 19, 2015 at 14:47
  • Consider that there were more than one Queen Elisabeth. Aug 19, 2015 at 14:48

2 Answers 2


The means "one X we've talked about or seen before."

It means exactly one specific known/seen X - if there is more than one X, you can't use the unless you qualify the noun with adjectives so we know which one. The X can refer to a plural noun that is an indivisible group logically functioning as one "unit", i.e. the dozen eggs.

It also can be used with nouns that fall into a logical category of "one X that everyone should have seen or heard of before" or "only one possible X in the world."

Introducing a singular noun into a conversation with the indicates the speaker expects the listener to know which one on his/her own.

It's difficult to give general rules on when to use the versus a because the points above heavily depend on variable conditions outside of the conversation.

Walking around Prague I saw the house that was painted red.

Is there a well-known red painted house previously known or seen both the speaker and listener? We then use the to indicate we are referring to it. If a was used, it means a red house was seen, but it wasn't anything special, and it wasn't a specific one known or seen before by the speaker/listener.

English, as you know, is full of exceptions. One of those is generally you do not use the in front of proper nouns that are the names of people.

Technically, you can do this, but you will be making the person sound "legendary" - as though he/she has done something so grand or unique that "one X that everyone should have seen or heard of before" or "only one possible X in the world" applies. So, in that case the Queen Elisabeth could work.


I came up with the following rule. I'm not saying I'm the first who came up with something like this, but it works for me like a charm.

Try to insert any (kind of) or some (kind of) in front of the noun in question. If at least one of those works, put a for singular countable or no article for plural countable and uncountable nouns. If none work, put the.

It does not work for proper nouns though, but that's another story.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .