I've spent years in the States and I'm still confused when I should use "the" in sentences.

These are the cases that I know that I have to use a definite article.

case 1: refer to specific objects. he was working at the firm where his colleagues were friendly.

case 2: refer to unique objects. The earth is a planet.

case 3: general statements The human is a foolish species.

What I'm the most confused about are the situations where "the" makes a difference in meanings. For example, I went to the college means I was physically present at the college, and I went to college means I finished a degree.

Using a definite article is very confusing to me. There seem to be many exceptions and special rules, and also idiomatic ways of using and not using a definite article.

Could someone kindly clarify the usage of "the" for me?

  • 1
    As you say "There [are] many exceptions and special rules, and also idiomatic ways ... ." So you've answered your own question: there is no easy way to 'clarify the usage of "the"'! If there were, you'd probably have learnt it by now. So I think you're effectively asking the impossible!
    – TrevorD
    Jun 29 '13 at 23:24
  • 4
    Articles are all idiosyncratic. They exist as flags that are available to mark individual idioms and constructions, and There Is No Single Rule for articles. There are either no rules (all idioms) or several hundred rules, depending on which grammatical church you subscribe to. But for sure there's no simple rule. Sorry, that's just the way it is. At least you don't have to learn 85 uses for the ablative case. Jun 30 '13 at 0:31
  • Then is the only way to get accustomed to when to use a definite articles is to get used to all the idioms?
    – Maximus S
    Jun 30 '13 at 4:33
  • 2
    "The sun and the earth are planets"? "The sun and the earth are planets"? Really? Really?
    – RegDwigнt
    Jun 30 '13 at 13:33
  • 1
    @MaximusS nobody is born a native speaker. And nobody explains to native speakers how to use articles, or really any word at all. They just copy what they hear from other native speakers, and learn every single expression by heart. You want to achieve the fluency of a native speaker, you do just that. All of them had to do it, and so can you. As to the Sun, it is called the Sun because it is a sun. Just like the Moon is called the Moon because it's a moon. Planets go around suns, and moons go around planets. I find it hard to believe you don't know that.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jun 30 '13 at 23:09

When you say 'I went to the college' as you stated in your question it refers to a specific object.

However 'college' in general is an international institution. They are not run by one person but they all share the same goals and many even share research and resources. So someone might ask 'Did you go to college?' which is a short way of saying 'Did you ever attend a college for academic studies?' without having to state what college you actually attended. Sometimes you don't need to know what college they went to, just that they went in general which tells you what you need to know (if are they are educated).


A Surgeon - 'I was in surgery'
A missing child - 'I was in the surgery'

If a surgeon says 'I was in surgery' it means he was performing an operation. If he says 'I was in the surgery' he is telling you that he was simply there but not during an operation.

Referring to your question example, imagine there are two police officers that talk to kids about drugs. On Monday they will be visiting two high schools and a college. You could ask them 'did you go to the college?' and if they had already been to the college they would reply yes.

On the same day, if you asked them 'did you go to college?' they would probably try to clarify your English and say something like 'Did I go to the college?' with a puzzled look on their face. This is because what you have asked them is 'Did you ever attend a college for studies'

I can see that this can be very confusing for people learning English and I hope my explanation makes sense to you :)


For example, I went to the college means I was physically present at the college, and I went to college means I finished a degree.

The first example I went to the college, means someone went to a particular college. In that case it would be necessary to mention which particular college is being referred to. Otherwise that example would make no sense.

The second example is in a general sense. It means that someone has attended a college but, is not mentioning which one in particular. It does not have to mean that someone finished a degree. That seems strange because in this part of the world at least, because degrees are not done in colleges. They are done in universities.

These examples demonstrate the difference between referring to something in particular and something in general.

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