English Articles: One of the Trickiest Grammar Topics on Earth

While doing research for my next video lesson on articles, I stumbled over the use of the definite article with the name of our planet. When do we refer to it as “the Earth” and when do we simply say “Earth”? For that matter, do we always have to capitalize the name or is it optional? Example: Why on earth is this word so problematic? Should “earth” in that example be capitalized?

I think the first guideline is the one we apply to the names of the planets in our solar system. We use the zero article, and we capitalize each name: Mercury, Venus, Mars, etc. Following this guideline, we can say we live on planet Earth. We’re simply stating the name of our planet.

Also, when talking in the context of outer space and science, we tend to capitalize “Earth” and the definite article is usually needed to make a specific reference:

the Earth’s rotation

orbit the Earth

the Earth’s atmosphere

the surface of the Earth/ the Earth’s surface

However, “earth” can also be used as a synonym for “world”, right? As in why on earth did I choose such a tricky topic? = Why in the world did I choose such a tricky topic? In this case and in other set expressions, we tend to use a lowercase “e” and the zero article:

Desserts at that restaurant are heaven on earth.

She’s very down-to-earth.

What on earth made you say that?

Of course, every guideline has its exceptions: He’d follow you to the ends of the earth. The phrase is idiomatic, but it uses the structure “the [noun 1] + of the [noun 2]”.

What are your thoughts? What guidelines would you share with students to help them decide when to use the definite article with “earth” and when to capitalize the name?






13 Comments Add yours

  1. jeff says:

    well, my thought is that i shall learn that from you, cause i’ve been following you in the internet, watching your videos. i’ve learned a lot and i’l learn more. thanks for sharing.

  2. Milena says:

    I was translating an SF novel and I was constantly confused when to use a capital letter with Earth when not to use it, and more concerned about the articles. However, I completely agree with you because when I found this article near the end of my translation project I followed exactly the same rules that you’ve stated in your text. So, hopefully, both of us are right. Thanks for posting this it really helped to have a place where I could check my assumptions.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      I’m glad someone agrees with me, Milena. I have a whole category called Student Stumpers. I especially use that category when I need to explore and test my own assumptions.
      Please visit again! Best wishes to you!

  3. Ashish says:

    I was studying articles and got confused.This was a great help.Thank you, Jennifer

    1. You’re most welcome. I’m glad the post proved to be useful.
      Kind regards,

  4. hayam says:

    thank you jennifer
    I’m studying English
    It’s really helpful

    1. Good luck in your studies. Please visit my website. I’ll be adding new content soon. 🙂

  5. Jamie N says:

    The general rule is to capitalise proper nouns.
    Earth in this context is a proper noun – as far as I’m concerned 🙂

    What on Earth (referring to the planet that we live on). Thus, Earth should be capitalised.
    There is a rule for it already, why would we want to complicate it further by making up these arbitrary exceptions?

    1. Hello and thank you for your patience. I’m sorry it took a while to get your comment approved. I’m glad someone is keeping this discussion fresh.

      Indeed why complicate things with more rules? But then why is there so much inconsistency in written English? Dictionaries and other reference books expose students to different noun phrases: earth, the earth, Earth, the Earth. What can we tell them? Is it really a matter of choice? I agree with you that when we refer to our planet by name, we capitalize it. (We live on planet Earth. The Earth revolves around the Sun.) Then again, scroll through some of the examples in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. You’ll see both earth and Earth used in reference to the planet. The use of the lower-case “e” seems to be the preferred choice in idioms. I think the only clear guidelines to give students are that we almost always use Earth to name the planet and earth to refer to soil or the ground.

      It’s a little trickier to explain when the definite article is needed. Personally, I find it interesting that we don’t use the definite article before the names of other planets.

      Thank you for posting your comment!

      Link: http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/earth_1

  6. Brian says:

    I have a student who asked me the same question why we don’t say The Venus, The Mars… I told him the history of the English language is filled with examples of non-sequitor rules, but couldn’t give a clear reason why it wouldn’t follow. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts

    1. Hello Brian,

      Perhaps we can view the planets as large places, like countries. We don’t use an article before most countries unless it’s a group of islands or a union of states.
      1. Russians live in Russia.
      2. BUT Americans live in the United States.
      3. Martians live on Mars. 🙂 (Similar to #1, but we use IN for a country, which has borders, and ON for a planet.)

  7. NK says:

    The following article disagrees slightly, in respect to using ‘earth’ as a common noun:

    1. Hello. Sorry for the delayed response. I’m back from my travels.

      Thank you for adding another useful link. Indeed, as the other article points out, there is quite a bit of inconsistency. This makes it difficult to determine what is correct or at least acceptable.

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