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'A' or 'The' - with places

Updated: Jun 27, 2020

Whether to use 'a' or 'the' is a very difficult question. Here we will only focus on places. Please check back for other situations.


Basic rules:

  • 'The' if you know the place before the action

  • 'A' if you don't know the place before the action

  • No 'a' or 'the' if the place is a proper noun


Work - examples


1.

Last week I went to work.

There is no 'a' or 'the' here because 'work' is being used as a verb, not a place. Contrast with these sentences:


Last week I went to eat [in my favourite restaurant].
This week I will go to play [football].

The structure is the same but '...went to work' does not need an object as it is obvious from context.


2.

Last week I went to the office.

Here we are using 'the' when we talk about the place of work. Why is it 'the'? There are many offices - shouldn't it be 'an' office?


In this situation the speaker is referring to a specific office (one of one) and so is using 'the'.


3.

Last week I went to an office.

In this sentence we know that the speaker went to a place they were unfamiliar with because they used 'an'. This means that the office was 'one of many'.


School / University - examples


1.

I went to school yesterday.
I went to university yesterday.

We do not have 'a' or 'the' here. My explanation is that both have been shortened from their full names. If you say you went to a place with a proper noun then no 'a' or 'the' is needed. A school and university would typically have the word 'school' or 'university' in their proper noun name. As such, it's easy to drop the full name if you know which school or university you went to and just leave school.


  • I went to Tesco yesterday. (No preposition as it's a proper noun)

  1. I went to St. Luke's Primary School yesterday. (No preposition as it's a proper noun)

  2. I went to St. Luke's Primary School yesterday. (remove the bit in red - it's obvious which school you go to)

  3. I went to school yesterday.


  1. I went to Bristol University yesterday.

  2. I went to Bristol University yesterday.

  3. I went to university yesterday.

2.

I went to the school yesterday.

I would say this if it was unusual that I went (my day off, or a non-school day). 'The' is used because it, to the speaker, is a unique school (one of one) - the school you know.


3.

I went to a school yesterday.

This is a school the speaker doesn't know and so it is 'one of many' for them.


Everyday life - examples

This morning I went to the supermarket.

It is 'the' because before the action (went) the speaker knew which supermarket they would go to.


I go to the gym everyday.

We use 'the' because the speaker knows the gym they go to everyday.


I needed some money so went to a bank.

The speaker has used 'a' because they did not know which bank they would go to before starting the action.


With proper nouns


Proper nouns are individual names for individual things. For example, your name is a proper noun. Cities are proper nouns (New York, Paris, London), as are countries (United States of America, France, United Kingdom).


If the place is a proper noun you do not add a 'the' or 'a'.

She ate at Burger King.
He had a drink at Milk & Honey.
We went to France on holiday.

Problems


Countries: some countries do have 'the':

  • I went to the USA.

  • I went to the UK.

  • I went to the Philippines.

  • I went to the Netherlands.

The reason is that these countries are made up of a group of individual states / countries. The United Kingdom, for example, is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The United States of America is made up of 50 individual states.


More than one: some proper nouns have more than one place (McDonald's, for example)

I went to McDonald's.

General statement.

I went to the McDonald's.

Here you are talking about a specific McDonald's. You use 'the' to identify which one out of many.

I went to a McDonald's.

This statement means that the McDonald's you went to was unknown to you before you started the action.


In practice

You are on holiday.


1.


"The food was amazing. For lunch on our first day we found a gorgeous restaurant. It served the freshest seafood. We went back to the restaurant for dinner on the same day."


  1. Why is it 'a restaurant' first?

  2. Why is it 'the restaurant' next?


It is 'a' first because the speaker did not know of the restaurant before they found it (it was one of one). After, they knew the restaurant and so it became 'one of one', and the.


2.


"There was a shop in the town centre which sold delicious pastries. If you visit, it is the shop on the corner."


It is 'a' because the speaker is talking generally, it is one shop of many (and so 'a').


The speaker then uses 'the' because they are referring to 'one of one' shop.


3.


"On our last day we went to a McDonald's because I really wanted a beef burger."


The speaker has used 'a' to stress the McDonald's was unknown to them before the action started.


"On our last day we went to McDonald's because I really wanted a beef burger."


This means exactly the same as the one above, there is just less emphasis on if you knew it or not.


Conclusion


If you know the place before the action starts = the


I played football at the gym.

She practised at the art studio on the corner.


If you don't know the place before the action starts = a


I'm going to a bar tonight near the train station.

We will stay at a hotel that my friend recommended.


If the place is a proper noun = no 'a' or 'the'


I ate dinner at Burger King.

I saw Buckingham Palace.


*Note that some proper nouns have 'The' in their name: The British Museum.

*Note I naturally add 'the' to other museums, although I shouldn't: The Natural History Museum, The Tate Modern because I think it forms part of the name.



Please write any questions you have in the comment section and give me one example of each 'a' and 'the' from your lives.


In my life: 27.6.20


This is something I wrote to a friend:

Someone offered me a job in a bar and I said 'yes'.

Why is it 'a bar'?


I know the name of the bar so could have said that. I said 'a bar' because I didn't know I would go to that bar before I started the evening.


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