Using “the” for second reference and specific reference

Knowing when to use “a,” “an,” and “the” is hard  for students learning English as a second language.  This is especially true for Asian students who have no articles in their native languages.  For Europeans it is easier because they are used to articles, though sometimes not used in the same way as in English.

To review what we said in recent blogs:

  • “A” or “an” is used before singular nouns (A dog licked an object).
  • No article is used before noncount singular nouns and before plural nouns. (I like rice and bananas.)
  • “The” is used before one-of-a-kind nouns but not before names. (The Statue of Liberty seemed big to Molly.)
  • “The” is used before titles to describe roles when the name is not included. (The senator spoke.)

Here are some other rules.

  • “The” is used for singular, plural and noncount nouns when the nouns are mentioned for the second time. “I saw a girl today.  The girl wore a head scarf.”  In the first sentence, girl is singular and is mentioned for the first time, so “a” is used.  “The” is used at the second reference to mean the girl just talked about.

One way to teach this concept is by using cartoons which show objects for the first time in one frame and then repeated in a later frame.  “Snoopy is asleep on a dog house.  He jumps off the dog house to chase a ball.  The ball stops next to Charlie Brown.”  Ask students to create sentences about the action.

Another way is with picture books.  “A cat wearing a hat came into a house.  Two children watched.  The cat talked to the children in the house.”

  • “The” is used when we refer to a singular object which is specific to the speaker or character. If a child says, “I will take the bus to school tomorrow,” we know he means the particular bus which he always takes, the one which stops near his house.  When someone says, “I need to go to the dentist later today,” the speaker means she needs to visit the dentist whom she always sees, not just any dentist.  To the speakers, the bus and the dentist are specific and one-of-a-kind.  So “the” is appropriate.


  • In the US we use “the” when we say particular phrases like “the hospital.” Americans say “He went to the hospital” but British people say “He went to hospital.”


  • When a singular or plural noun is preceded by a possessive noun or pronoun, no article is needed. (Our coats are near Mary’s purse.)


  • When a singular or plural noun is preceded by a number, no article is needed. (The principal needs 10 teachers to proctor the exam for 300 students.)


  • The United States or the US is always preceded by “the.”  So are the Philippines and the Netherlands.


  • Homework is noncount.  It is wrong to say “a homework” or “two homework.”  To show amounts of homework, use the word “assignments” after “homework.”  I have three homework assignments.

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