The Problem With The

So how hard is it to teach English? Can’t be that hard, right? Ponder this. One of, if not the, most common words in the English language is ‘the’. How do you teach this? It’s not as easy as you might think. First of all, the pronunciation isn’t quite as simple as you might think. Aside from the fact that many non natives just can’t master the ‘th’ sound that is so common in the English language, you might also notice that some people on some occasions may pronounce the word as heard in Thi-rd’, whilst at other times it will sound more like ‘Thee’.

I’m going to watch the football.

I’m going to play the football.

Two very similar sentences, but one is wrong whilst the other is right. You know which one. But why?
One of the things I find difficult in many English text books is the lack of context, but I guess that is one of the reasons I am there – to add a little more meaning. The above is an example. You do not need to use the word ‘the’ when referring to something in general, as in the second example, providing it is in plural form, or the noun is uncountable.

Why do we use in it sentence one? Well, you use the article ‘the’ when referring to what is already known – and in our sentence, despite the lack of context to tell a confused student otherwise, we can safely assume that the person hearing the sentence either knows, or is thought to know, which football game the speaker is talking about.

We also use ‘the’ when referring to familiar or unique items, to something that has already been mentioned, and also to uncountable nouns defined by a following phrase or clause.

That last one is quite tricky. The society today has become more violent. Clearly not right. The society we live in today has become more violent. Sounds better now? Yep, the word society has now been defined, so we can use ‘the’.

It’ll take a while before it really sinks in though, poor students! Of course, there are often multiple ways of saying exactly the same thing which will only add to the confusion!

The dog is a social animal.

Dogs are social animals.

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