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 'The', 'a' and 'an'
Going to the pub?

Lubos Stastny from The Czech Republic asks:

I’m a teacher and one of the most difficult things that I find in English are articles, namely the, a and an. In some cases it’s quite clear, but sometimes I’m lost.

I quite often heard from native speakers this phrase: ‘I’m going to the pub’. The person didn’t mean any particular pub, he was just saying that he was going for a drink.

Why do we say: the pub? I don’t know whether we can say a pub in that phrase, but it doesn’t sound correct to me. Thank you for your help in advance.

 

Roger replies:more questions

The

You are quite right, Lubos. We would rarely, if ever, say: ‘I’m going to a pub’. It would be too vague.

When somebody asks: ‘Shall we go to the pub?’, even if the particular pub has not been formally identified yet, he has in mind which one they will probably go to, or, if not, then a quintessential pub. Similar considerations apply to the following examples:

  • 'Are you going to the mountains or the sea-side for your holidays this year?'

  • 'When you next go to the supermarket, can you get me some natural yoghurt?'

  • 'You’ve got a very bad cough. Have you been to see the doctor yet?'
In all of these examples, it is clear to both listener and speaker which doctor, which supermarket, which sea-side and which mountains they have in mind.
The is often used in this way with words that refer to aspects of our physical environment of which there is only one or with which everybody is familiar. Examples would be: the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, the world, the rain, the wind, the Government, the police. Study these examples in context:
  • 'Just like the total eclipse of the sun in 1999, the total eclipse of the moon on 10 January 2001 could not be seen in most parts of Britain because of cloud cover.'
    (Note that when we refer to continents, countries, counties or towns, we do not usually use articles.)

  • 'When I’m tucked up in bed at night, I love listening to the wind and the rain beating on my window.'
    (Note that ‘bed’, like ‘home’ or ‘school’, is one of those very common nouns that do not usually need an article.)

  • 'The world would be a better place if people were less selfish.'
    (Note ‘people’ = people generally, so no article)

zero article v the

Compare the following:

  • 'People who live in towns are often afraid of dogs.'

  • 'I reminded the children to feed the dogs.'

Here, the first statement is a general one: ‘people’, ‘towns’ and ‘dogs’ generally, any towns, any dogs, so no article is needed.

In the second statement, the person speaking has particular children and particular dogs in mind, so uses the. Similar considerations apply to the following examples:

  • 'A glass of wine every day is good for you.'
    (Any wine will do, and by ‘a glass’, we mean ‘one glass’.)

  • 'What’ll you have?' 'I’d like a glass of dry white wine please.'
    (It doesn’t matter what sort of wine it is, as long as it’s dry and white.)

  • 'Pass the wine, Fred, there’s a good chap!' (The wine that is sitting on the table, next to your elbow!)

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