The use of the word ‘the’ is sometimes difficult to grasp for non-native speakers of English. It is a definite article. Some languages, like Japanese, do not have articles. Others, like Spanish or German, have them but use them in different ways.
‘The’ is the definite article. This means that it is used to indicate that a noun is a specific one instead of any other things in that class of noun.
“I am trying to find money.”
“I am trying to find the money.”
In the first sentence, the noun is used without an article, which means that it is money in general, or any money at all. However, the second sentence uses ‘the’, which means that the person is trying to find specific money. If the person has lost some amount of money and wants to get it back, then they would most likely use the second sentence instead of the first one.
For another example:
“Men get rowdy.”
“The men get rowdy.”
The first sentence is talking about all men, or men as a group. The second sentence is referring to a specific group of men. In most cases, it should be apparent which group the speaker means: if they are talking about a specific group, then that group will probably be something they have talked about before, or something that is being indicated with a gesture.
English has other articles, as well. ‘A’ and ‘an’ are the indefinite articles. They have the same function, but ‘a’ is used before a consonant sound and ‘an’ is used before a vowel sound. These are used when the speaker wants to talk about one thing in a group, but in general and not one in particular.
“The butterfly soars through the air.”
“A butterfly soars through the air.”
In the first sentence, the butterfly is one that is being indicated or has been indicated. The butterfly in the second sentence is one which is not being indicated.
In English, articles are not used in some cases. Articles are determiners, meaning that they determine which one someone is talking about. If another determiner is used, such as a possessive pronoun, then it’s not necessary to use the
“Would you like some tea?”
“Would you like my tea?”
Neither sentence needs ‘the’ or ‘a’, since ‘some’ determines how much of the tea the speaker is talking about and ‘my’ tells you which tea it is because it means the tea that belongs to the speaker.
Additionally, articles are not used with generic nouns, which are used to mean all the items in general.
“Love is a grand emotion.”
‘Love’ does not need an article, since it means love in general and not a specific love. If someone were to talk about the love between Romeo and Juliet, then an article would be used because that is specific.
Most proper names do not use articles, as well. The exceptions are when the proper name includes a common noun or the item is thought of as unique. For instance, ‘the Mississippi River’ uses ‘the’ because it has ‘river’ in the name. If the ‘river’ part is left off, then it is still ‘the Mississippi’, because the speaker is still talking about a river. The same is true with mountain ranges, like ‘the Appalachians’, bridges, or unique things like the Great Wall of China, the earth, the sun, or the moon.
Other than those, ‘the’ is not used for proper names, such as personal names, city names, country names, planet names, street names, or mountain names.
In short, ‘the’ is used when you want to indicate a specific item, but there are no other determiners to use. In many cases, ‘the’ can be used interchangeably with either ‘this’ or ‘that’, but it is used when the distance of the object is not important.