‘The’ points in 3 directions

Before we get into the pointing functions of ‘the’, let’s read a short text:


Once upon a time there was a princess. She lived in a great castle and was respected by the people of her village. One day the princess disappeared from the castle. The king was very worried.


Now let’s look at three noun groups with ‘the’:


The peopleof her village


In the noun group ‘the people of her village’, the main noun is ‘people’. The definite article ‘the’ points forward to the postmodifying phrase ‘of her village’. In other words, ‘the people’ is identified by ‘of her village’ (see the previous blog about the identifying function of ‘the’).


One day ← the princess disappeared


In the noun group ‘the princess’, the main noun is ‘princess’. The definite article ‘the’ points backward to the previously mentioned ‘a princess’. Since the princess has already been mentioned, we use ‘the’ to identify ‘the princess’ as ‘the same princess already mentioned’.


The king ↗ was very worried


In the noun group ‘the king’, the main noun is ‘king’. The definite article ‘the’ points outward, or outside the text into the world (context). It doesn’t matter that the world is not real. In the context of a fairy tale with a princess, the reader can reasonably guess that a king will also be in the story. This is why we say ‘the king’: he can be identified as ‘the king you would expect to find in a fairy tale’.


Other examples of outward pointing are:

  • The sun / the moon
  • The world
  • The president
  • The internet
  • The government

For each of these noun groups, the reader or listener can reasonably guess which item is being referred to, especially if only one item exists in that context: for example ‘the president’ (of this country).

This is why traditional grammar books often say that we use ‘the’ if there is only one of something. While this may be true some of the time, I hope you can see that the real function of ‘the’ ‘is that it identifies and points to a specific item in a text or context.

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