GTE 1999 Minigrants: Adult Learning Center - ESL Program


In an interesting study at Johns Hopkins University, two-year-olds were shown pictures and asked, "Find the dog." They could, 90% of the time! When they were told, "Find gub dog," their scores dropped to 35%. (US News & World Report, 6/15/98, p. 48)

It is clear that noun markers are an important part of English speakers' thinking. If your teenager reports, "Just as I was coming into the parking lot, a car caught on fire," you will not panic. Why? Because a car means any car, someone else's unfortunate car. But if the sentence is, "Just as I was coming into the parking lot, the car caught on fire," then you know it was a specific car, the car your teen was driving. There's a big difference!

In this lesson, there are 19 GUIDELINES to help you master the. Also, there are POTHOLES that point out odd rules or exceptions to the GUIDELINES. There are also Practice pages to help you.

Remember, language in the brain is useless - mastery is language in your mouth! Read the italicized examples below each GUIDELINE out loud. Go back and re-read each Practice sentence so the correct use of a, an and the become natural for you.

Did you learn survival English so quickly that you have speech errors that have become habits? Can you read better than you can speak? Have you trained your brain to ignore noun markers?

Listen to these stories to help re-train your ears to how English speakers use noun markers. Listening: Anna, Tony, Joe, Maria and Ivan

FIRST SIGNPOST: The first question that an English speaker asks about a noun is "Does the listener or reader know which noun I'm talking about? " If the answer is "Yes," then the noun marker will be the. If the answer is "No," then it's on to the next crossroad.

GUIDELINE I: How do speakers/writers decide that this noun is known? First, ask if this specific noun has been used once before in the conversation. If it has, then when it is referred to the second time, the noun marker will be the.

"My pickup only rolled into a car, but the car had $500 in damages!" When the car is mentioned again, the noun marker changes from a to the. The/practice 1

POTHOLE: You may have seen exercises such as, "There is a pen in the desk. The pen is blue." This is not natural speech! Normally you would say, "There's a pen in the desk. It's blue." Usually, a pronoun is used rather than repeating the same noun again.

POTHOLE: If you are talking about two items that would have the same pronoun, you must repeat the same noun or restate it in some way to avoid confusion:

"Mary's brother owns a snake and a rooster. She loathes it." (Which one? The rooster or the snake?) Or even worse: "Mary's brother has a rooster. She loathes him." (The rooster or the brother?!) You would say, "Mary's brother owns a rooster and a snake. She loathes the snake."

If the speaker wants to emphasize a point, a noun is restated, marked by the. "Mary's brother has a snake for a pet. She loathes the creature."

GUIDELINE II: If the noun being talked about is in a setting that is familiar to both the speaker and the listener, use the.

The milk in the frig is for the cat, not for you. (Here the person who wrote this note and the person who reads it both know which milk, which frig and which cat.)

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GUIDELINE III: If the noun being talked about is closely associated with a known topic it is taken for granted that this noun is also known.

I saw a bus swerving, with the driver slumped over the steering wheel. (The speaker has introduced the topic: a bus. It is assumed that the listener knows that all buses have steering wheels and drivers.)

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GUIDELINE IV: If the noun is a one-of-a kind object or person that everybody knows, use the.

Here is a partial list:

the devil the earth the equator the moon

the north pole the ocean the planets the sea

the sky the south pole the stars the sun

the universe the weather the world the Bible

These are sometimes capitalized, especially names like the Pope.

"Look at the beautiful sunset!"

I've seen the Dalai Lama in person.

POTHOLE: These nouns can be used with adjectives, which may change them from a one-of-a-kind noun to one that is general.

The painting featured a huge orange harvest moon. (This could be an orange harvest moon from any evening, any year, so it takes the indefinite noun marker a.)

POTHOLE: You must judge if your listener shares the same circle of familiar things that you do. If you say, "I can't stand the President," it makes a big difference if you are talking to a fellow citizen of your country or to someone with another president!

Intermediate level

GUIDELINE V: There are a few common nouns of location which drop the when they are used to talk about the activities at those places rather than the location itself. (Where the is dropped, the space will be marked by the symbol ~)

I started ~school when I was six. (The focus is on the classes - the activity)

The tornado damaged the school. (The focus is on the building - the location.)

Did you make the bed? (location) I'm so tired. I'm going to ~bed (activity: sleep!)

Here is a list of words that are used in this way:

church school court college jail

home bed town class prison

(British English adds hospital and university)

The/practice 5

GUIDELINE VI: Nouns that have superlative adjectives usually take the because those adjectives make them one-of-a-kind. These adjectives end in '-est' or have 'most' in front them.

What is the largest city in the world?

She thinks English is the most difficult language to learn.

POTHOLE: There are times when 'best' is part of a pair of words that always go together and have their own special meaning. So with 'best man' 'best seller' or 'best friend' you can use a or no noun marker. Sometimes, 'worst' is also used this way.

I've never had a best friend.

Just give us a worst-case scenario, Sarge!

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POTHOLE: There are also times when 'most' is an adverb, and takes a, or has the special meaning of 'the majority of.'

This was a most unfortunate mistake.

Like ~most politicians, he had quite an ego.

GUIDELINE VII: Like superlative adjectives, there are other adjectives which can turn ordinary nouns into one-of-a kind nouns. 'First' and 'last' need the when they are followed by 'of......'

"Who ate the last of the ice cream?" "Ask the usual suspects!"

Here is a partial list of adjectives that can do this:

back beginning bottom edge end

first following* front last main

middle next* only opposite present

principle right same* sole top

ultimate usual wrong second, third, etc.

*These words, as adjectives, cannot be used with a.

POTHOLE: This rule does not always apply! If there are several possibilities, and the speaker and listener don't know which one, then the is not used.

They took a wrong turn. (There may have been many side roads.)

He gave her a last kiss. (Maybe, maybe not....)

However, to emphasize that one choice in particular is incorrect, use the:

He sure picked the wrong career. (The specific one he has is not good)

POTHOLE: Number order words beyond 'first' and 'second' are more likely to be used without the.

We really didn't plan for a fourth child, especially a third boy.

POTHOLE: In informal speech, the is dropped before 'last' and 'next.'

See you ~next week!

He came in ~last.

POTHOLE: Just as with 'best,' there are pairs of words that have different meanings.

She is an only child. He's a middle child, and an only son.

POTHOLE: 'Same' can be said without its noun in very informal speech.

Are you having the soup and ~sandwich? I think I'll have the same.

Note: With these paired words, the second the is dropped.

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POTHOLE: Many of the words listed above can be either adjectives or nouns.

I'd like an edge piece, please.

GUIDELINE VIII: Many other nouns are made definite when they are followed by an 'of' phrase.

What's the cost of a new SUV?

Here is a partial list of these nouns:

back beginning bottom center cost

depth edge end front height

length middle price side size

title top title weight width

Often, these nouns do not have to be specifically mentioned before, but still use the because they are part of a familiar setting (see GUIDELINE II)

The skier was unhurt even though he fell down the side of the mountain.

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GUIDELINE IX: Comparative adjectives and adverbs can also use the. This shows how one noun is different from another.

The worse the wheat crop is, the higher the price of bread will be.

Many sayings and fixed expressions show this kind of contrast.

The bigger they come, the harder they fall.

Sure, bring your cousins - the more the merrier!

GUIDELINE X: If you are writing a story, you may want to add some interest to the opening by using the to highlight something the reader does not know about. This makes the item mysterious, and hints that it will be important later on.

She didn't really know why she bought the knife.

GUIDELINE XI: If you want to show that something is the absolute best, you can use the to emphasize that it is in a class by itself.

A pickup is the vehicle to drive in Montana. Main street is the place to drive around on Saturday night. (Pronounced 'thee.')

It's not just good bread. It's the best bread in town!

NOTE: American English does have two pronunciations of the. 'Thuh' is used with nouns that start with a consonant sound, and 'thee' with nouns that start with vowels sounds. In everyday speech, it's hard to hear this difference. However, in formal speech, a speaker may pronounce 'thee' more clearly.

Ladies and gentlemen, you may ask who started this international crisis. But you may as well ponder which came first, the (thuh) chicken or the (thee) egg.

If you want to really stress the importance of a noun, use the 'thee' pronunciation of the.

What? You played high school basketball with the (thee) Michael Jordan?

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The next GUIDELINE will take you to an Advanced level. Please make sure that you have mastered using the previous material before going on, or you may get confused. Remember, knowing these guidelines is quite useless unless you can use this knowledge to produce speech and writing!

GUIDELINE XII: The is also used with nouns followed by prepositions other than 'of.' In this sentence, find three the nouns and their prepositional phrases:

Anna was being questioned by her boss. She had memorized the information in the contract, so she knew the answers to the trick questions, though she couldn't guess the reason for the suspicions he displayed.

GUIDELINE XIII: The is used when a noun is followed by a 'that,' 'which,' 'who' or 'whom' phrase.

He's the guy who invented frisbees, and he has the first dollar that he ever made.

She's the friend to whom I would turn in times of trouble.

These roses are the type which does not die in the winter.

GUIDELINE XV: The can be used when you introduce a noun in a familiar setting and then go on to tell more about it in the same sentence.

The trouble with you is your attitude!

Don't lose sight of the progress which has been made.

GUIDELINE XV: The can be used with a noun that is followed by 'to' plus an infinitive. Follow the normal rules from GUIDELINES I, II AND III.

Childhood poverty denied him the opportunity to go to college. This refers to the opportunity that comes at the traditional time after high school. In contrast, here's the same word used as an indefinite noun: She is waiting for an opportunity to ask the boss for a raise.

I've never felt the need to go bunge jumping. (a definite, one-time activity)

I don't feel a need to eat a big breakfast most days. (indefinite, common activity)

Here is a list of nouns that commonly have 'to' + infinitive:

attempt bid chance compulsion desire failure

need ability inability opportunity readiness reason

refusal urge way willingness unwillingness

GUIDELINE XVI: The can be used to introduce a noun phrase that helps you describe something or someone.

The great New Zealand mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hilary, endorsed the book.

His mother, the elderly lady in a pink hat, smiled at me.

GUIDELINE XVII: The is used with an adjective as a shortcut to describe something with that characteristic.

Boy Scouts are taught to be prepared for the unexpected. In this sentence, it is understood that 'the unexpected' means all sorts of unexpected situations.

Here is a partial list of the + adjectives that mean 'something that is......'

abstract bizarre exotic incredible inevitable

new obvious impossible unknown supernatural

unbelievable unexpected unthinkable

In the same way, people can also be characterized by adjectives:

disabled elderly poor rich unemployed

"...the land of the free and the home of the brave," is in the US national anthem.

GUIDELINE XVIII:The is used when you choose a representative of general group, an entire species, a nationality or a whole class of people or objects.

The raccoon can be pesky. (This is rather formal.)

POTHOLE: Believe it or not, the meaning of this sentence is exactly the same as two others:

Raccoons can be pesky. (This refers to the whole species, using the plural.)

A raccoon can be pesky. (This is informal, referring to any raccoon.)

If you say, The raccoons can be pesky, you and the listener know that you are talking about some rascally raccoons familiar to both of you

GUIDELINE XIX: You can use the with numbers.

I found a blue coat and a green one. I chose the green one.

The kittens are so cute. The black one is the smaller of the two.

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