When to Use the Article THE with Uncountable Nouns

Many English learners have trouble using articles in grammar. If you can go back to a related article I’ve written earlier, you’d find that we’ve already discussed this. So let’s have a brief review of what articles are.

So, articles can make or break your sentence. These are simple little words that can make your English sound good or awkward. Yes, “a”, “an”, and “the” are words, even if they are small ones, and they are considered adjectives. Just like other adjectives, articles modify or give more information about the noun that follows. There are two types of article in English: definite and indefinite.

THE” is a definite article which limits the meaning of a noun to one specific thing. So for instance, your friend asks you, “Are you ready for the party?”  The definite article here is referring to a particular event that you and your friend are talking about. You both know about that specific party, that’s why you need to use THE. Definite article is used with plural, singular, and uncountable nouns.

Today, we will focus only on the article THE when used with abstract nouns or uncountable nouns. Many students still get confused about deciding when to use THE and when not to.

Let’s see how much you know by looking at these examples. From the sentences below, which one is correct? Would you know? How do you decide which one is right?

1)

Life is precious.

OR

The life is precious.

*Life is a general concept. It is abstract. So we don’t use THE. We’re not talking about something specific here. But when you want to talk about something that is specific, then that’s when you use THE. For instance:

THE life of a newborn baby is precious.

We’re talking specifically about the life of a baby.

2)

Friendship is a special gift.

OR

The friendship is a special gift.

*Friendship is a general idea, so the first sentence is correct. But when you say, “The friendship of old people that has been tested through time is a treasure”, then it’s okay to use THE.  It’s because this time, I am specifying which friendship.

3)

Happiness is hard to find.

OR

The happiness is hard to find.

*As you may already have guessed, the first sentence is correct. The second one is wrong because when you say that, what do you actually mean by happiness? The happiness from what? But if you specify which happiness, then by all means use THE. For example this sentence, “I realize that the happiness of rich and famous people is not found in money or cars.”

4)

He has a problem with fear.

OR

He has a problem with the fear.

*Did you pick the right answer for number 4?

5)

She wants to lose weight.

OR

She wants to lose the weight.

*Is it general? If it is, then use the first sentence. But if you want to be specific with your explanation, then you can use THE. For instance, “She wants to lose the weight she gained during the holidays.”

6)

The young man wants to earn money.

OR

The young man wants to earn the money.

*Here, we are speaking in general. We didn’t say which money, so the first sentence is correct. We are not talking about the means to make money or the purpose of the money. But look at the next sentence, which shows us a specific usage:

“The young man wants to earn the money that he’ll use to buy a new car.”

Here’s another example to show the difference between specific and general abstract nouns:

She needs to earn respect.

Now the following two sentences are talking about respect in very specific scenarios:

She needs to earn the respect of her staff.

AND

She needs to earn the respect of her colleagues.

So, which respect? We’re talking about the respect of her staff and the respect of her colleagues that’s why we use THE.

Let us take a look at these sentences again:

Life is precious.

Friendship is a special gift.

Happiness is hard to find.

He has a problem with fear.

She wants to lose weight.

The young man wants to earn money.

All of these are general concepts and so there’s no need to use THE.

Below, I will show more examples and as you read, try to decide which one is correct.

1.

I miss the great company I enjoyed with relatives over the weekend.

OR

I miss great company I enjoyed with relatives over the weekend.

*Hint. We are talking about a specific company—the company of relatives.

2.

Peace is essential.

OR

The peace is essential.

*Hint. We are talking about peace in general.

3.

Silence is golden.

OR

The silence is golden.

*Hint. We are talking about silence as a general idea. Now, compare the correct answer with this one—which is more specific:

“The silence around me, as I walk through the woods, is golden!”

4.

She wants to experience joy of getting pregnant and having her own baby.

OR

She wants to experience the joy of getting pregnant and having her own baby.

*Hint. We are talking about a specific joy here.

5.

Laughter of children is music to my ears.

OR

The laughter of children is music to my ears.

*Hint. Did we specify which laughter? If yes, then you already know which one is right.

 

So now, would you know whether to use THE or not?

Just always remember this rule of thumb: if we’re talking about a general idea or concept, don’t use THE. And when we are talking about something that is specific, then it’s best to use THE.

This will erase a lot of your mistakes and remove confusion when using THE for uncountable or abstract nouns.


Author
I have a passion for the English language because it is such a powerful tool for creativity and personal development. I've been writing articles since I was in High School. I represented my school in English writing competitions in the city, regional, and national levels. When I was in college, I wrote a short story which was published in the University Literary Portfolio. In 2006, I worked as a call center agent in Cebu City. In 2007 up to 2008, I worked as an English accent trainer in a startup call center company. I have also been offering ESL lessons as a freelance tutor since February 2016.