Native English speakers: What does "the hospital" refer to?
When you hear someone say (1), what do you understand "the hospital" refers to? The knowledge you have about what a hospital is? OR A specific hospital both you and the person you're talking to can identify?
(1) I went to the hospital to see my father as he had an operation yesterday.
How about (2)? What post office does "the post office" refer to?
(2) I used to work at the post office.
The knowledge you have about what a post office is? OR A specific post office both you and the person you're talking to can identify?
How does the meaning change if "a" is used instead of "the"?
(3) I went to a hospital to see my father as he had an operation yesterday.
(4) I used to work at a post office.
Thank you. I'd appreciate your feedback.
- Anonymous4 weeks agoFavourite answer
"the hospital" means both. It can be general OR specific. If you only say "the hospital", no one is going to know what you're talking about. You have to know the context of the conversation. English is a language of context. If you don't understand the context of a conversation, you will very often be lost when listening to English.
"He's in the hospital"– he can only be in ONE hospital, so, obviously, it's a specific one. "People who are in car accidents usually must go to the hospital"– this obviously is a general statement. It's true all over the world. It doesn't mean any one particular hospital. It would be impossible for everyone who's in a car accident to go to the same hospital.
We would not say "I went to a hospital yesterday to visit my father". It would (almost always) be "the hospital". It's the same with "post office". "I used to work for the post office". If you want to know which one, you can ask "Oh really? Which one?"
If someone says "I have to go to the post office", it's not important to the conversation which specific post office they go to. If you want to know, you can ask them.
If you want to mail a letter or package and want to find the nearest post office (if you're in an unfamiliar area), you can say "I need to find a post office", or ask "Is there a post office nearby?". You obviously need to find ONE post office, but it doesn't matter which one. You want to find whichever location is closest.
It's the same for "hospital".
- leabeeLv 44 weeks ago
You can also take 'the' to mean it's referring to the institution or the concept in general. He's in 'the hospital' or he worked for 'the post office' is describing the larger concept. 'In the hospital' implies he 'has been hospitalized', for illness or injury. "The post office" implies things that go on in the service as a whole - for example "the post office employs lots of people", etc.
It's tricky because sometimes 'the' *can* refer to a specific one - a nurse could say "I'm on shift at the hospital tonight", and mean a specific one where he works. Same with post office.
But when using "a", you're describing the building, the structure, the unique place. "this is a hospital" (identifies it) "on the corner is a post office" (refers to the building)