We're taught that abstract nouns don't take any articles before them.

But we have sentences like -

Speak the truth.


Don't tell a lie.

Why do abstract nouns like "truth" or "lie" take the articles before it here?

Please, answer my question with an explanation!

Thanks in advance!!


3 Answers 3


Truth, or eternal truth, encompasses everything that is true in the Universe, under God, etc.

When, however, one is asked, or forced, or proclaims, to speak the truth, it is always a portion of that big old truth; a segment pertaining to the matter at hand. It is the truth about something. About something. Some thing.

The truth about Bill Gates.
The truth about what really happened last night.
The truth about verismo opera.
The truth about yourself.
The truth about her (whoever she happens to be).

The (somewhat comical) line from John Keats' poem that goes "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" implies that all that is true in the Universe is beautiful, and vice versa: but even if it were, in fact, true, you would still have to be immortal, or nearly so, in your physical form, to speak all of it.

(Keats would have been correct, or nearly so, had he said "harmony" rather than "beauty," but that is besides the point).

The oath one takes in the courtroom in the United States and some other, less advanced, countries, "Do you solemnly (swear/affirm) that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, (so help you God/under pains and penalties of perjury)?" is really not a request to speak ALL of it (which would take an eternity and then some to accomplish), but only the truth that is pertinent to the case.

Speaking truthfully, on the other hand, is less restrictive. Philosophically speaking.

  • Is this the answer of my question?
    – Roby
    Jan 2, 2016 at 7:56

"Abstract nouns don't take articles." - That's a typical school rule for beginners. And such rules are mostly formulated in the wrong way.

If you find formulations such as "to tell the truth" the question should not be "Is this wrong English?", the reaction should be "Ah, my simple school rule is wrong".

A better formulation of the rule would be "Abstract nouns are mostly used without articles, but there are cases where an article is used. It is impossible for grammars to cover a lot of grammar points with exact rules. The handling of such "grey" grammar zones is a matter of experience you only get by reading a lot of original texts.


In many cases , the use of the English articles is heavily context dependant, so I will only touch the tip of the iceberg i.e. your examples.

You always use the noun truth with the definite article in the following case:

the truth [singular] the true facts about something, rather than the things that have been invented or guessed

  1. Do you think she's telling the truth?

  2. We are determined to get at (= discover) the truth.

  3. The truth (of the matter) is we can’t afford to keep all the staff on.

Source: http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/truth?q=truth

As you can infer from Sentence 3, when you specify what kind of truth i.e. when you use for instance the 'of' phrase to define a noun, in most cases, you will put the definite article, but treat this information with a grain of salt. Many non-native speakers put the definite article whenever they see the 'of' phrase, but that's not always the case. You have to read a lot to grasp those tiny nuances. Whilst most rules concerning articles are learnable, other can only be learned through extensive reading.

Regarding your second question: Lie is a countable noun, so you have to use the indefinite article. Again, there are instances where you might not use an indefinite article with a countable noun, but in 99.99% contexts, you will.

The sentence:

Don't tell a lie.

has the indefinite article because there is an infinite number of lies in the world. However, people say

This is the correct answer.

This is the wrong answer. (Even though there is an infinite number of wrong answers, you normally use the definite article here. There are even BA/MA theses on this topic.)

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