My name's Elsie Jackson. I'm eighty-nine years old. I was at school eighty years ago! Every morning I helped my mother. We lived on a farm, and sometimes I milked the cows. I walked eight kilometers to school. School started at eight o'clock. I learned reading, writing and math. And then I walked home with all my brothers and sisters. In the evening, my mother and I cooked the dinner. We didn’t watch TV, but we played games.


Shouldn't it be:

In the evening, my mother and I cooked dinner.

Grammar reference:

We do not normally use the with breakfast/lunch/dinner:

  • What did you have for breakfast?
  • We had lunch in a very nice restaurant.

Raymond Murphy, English Grammar in Use, Fourth edition, Page 146

  • 4
    Dinner could be countable or uncountable. That specific dinner, or the meal you eat in the evening in general. In your example, it is talking about general activities, so I would expect no article (other than for emphasis perhaps).
    – user3169
    Jan 9 '17 at 6:13
  • The grandmother is speaking metric :) No British or American elderly person would have said "eight kilometres", it would have been miles. Google tells me 8 km = 5 miles. As for "cooking the dinner" I've seen it with and without the article, it's not a mistake.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 9 '17 at 10:13
  • @Mari-LouA It's possible for it to not be a mistake at times, but it is a mistake here. The speaker is not speaking of any dinner in particular, but just the habit of cooking dinner in general, and so no "the" should be used. The OP is correct in her assumption. Jan 9 '17 at 11:46
  • @TeacherKSHuang - It could be "cooked dinner," and that's how I'd probably say it as well. However, I wouldn't go so far as to insist it is a mistake.
    – J.R.
    Jan 10 '17 at 10:21

I personally would not use "the" in the sentence, since the narration refers to the usual cycle/habitual action during Elsie's early years (when she's nine years old).


Because the narration also gives specific actions, I take it that the author wants to point out that Elsie is specifically cooking dinner, and that she's not cooking eggs, nor "midnight" meal, nor any other meal/cuisine or equivalent. Nothing (else) but dinner.


I think it's best to add @user3169's comment here.

"Dinner could be countable or uncountable. That specific dinner, or the meal you eat in the evening in general. In your example, it is talking about general activities, so I would expect no article (other than for emphasis perhaps)."

  • I could agree with this if Elsie means it the way you say it. Jan 9 '17 at 12:00

There is nothing inherently wrong with using the article before dinner in the line:

In the evening, my mother and I cooked the dinner.

You could argue that the definite article is unnecessary, that it adds nothing of value, but it is perfectly grammatical. If the question asked had been, ‘is it redundant?’ then I would have replied ‘probably’.

Looking for evidence of usage on Google Ngrams, we find in the British English corpus (2009), the results for cooked the dinner, cooked dinner

enter image description here

and the American English corpus (2009) produces the following graph for cooked the dinner (blue), cooked dinner (red)

enter image description here

  • It seemed such a long, long time since her mother had told her that she might gather some bush flowers while she cooked the dinner, and Dot recollected how she was bid not to go out of sight of the cottage
  • He cooked the dinner, sat down on the bench, and was smoking his pipe, when up came the old man riding in a mortar with a pestle to prop it up and a seven-arshin long plank for sleeping
  • Raymond arranged and cooked the dinner and left the rest of the last minute details to his mother and grandmother.

According to Google Ngrams, there are several instances of cooked the dinner, but cook dinner is by far the most common usage. I suspect that in certain dialects the difference is less marked.

  • Like you, I wonder if Elsie's narrative might reflect some dialectal preference or regionalism.
    – J.R.
    Jan 10 '17 at 10:30
  • @Mari-Lou A: "it is perfectly grammatical." Thanks for the answer, but I wonder if you could provide the rule and mention the grammar reference book. I reviewed my references and couldn't find anything relevant.
    – Mori
    Jan 13 '17 at 16:36
  • @Mori there is no "rule", it's a stylistic choice, or one dictated by dialect. I can say: In the evening, my husband made (the) dinner, and either version is fine. Some people would never use the article this way, while others might if they wanted to emphasise its "uniqueness".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 13 '17 at 16:49
  • @Mori Note that Murphy says in his grammar book: We do not normally...., there are always exceptions, special cases. Rules help, tremendously well at times, and disastrously at others and English native speakers don't need to follow grammar rules lavishly. The best writers in the world broke conventional rules.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 13 '17 at 16:56

Yes, in your example, it should be without the extra "the."

We would have included "the" if the speaker had been talking about a specific dinner.

However, she had been speaking about a habit of "cooking dinner," so "the" is not necessary.

  • 2
    Whether it's a habit doesn't make any difference. For example, you could say "Every day I milked the cows." She is in fact referring to a specific dinner: the dinner that the family ate.
    – stangdon
    Jan 9 '17 at 12:59
  • 1
    I don't like the use of "only" in your second sentence. Such an assertion only spreads DAMS.
    – J.R.
    Jan 10 '17 at 10:27
  • @stangdon I'm not sure I would read that sort of specificity into the sentence. However, if it were as shin mentioned in his answer, I would agree that it would be "the" dinner versus "the" other meals of the day. The thing is, this does not sound like the intent of the passage. It sounds like it simply wants the listener to know that the speaker had performed the action of cooking, regardless of which meal it had been exactly. Jan 10 '17 at 10:40
  • 1
    I think what @stangdon is saying is that the sentence could be considered elided. What if Elsie had written: "Every evening, my mother and I cooked the dinner for our family." The definite article doesn't sound so out-of-place there.
    – J.R.
    Jan 10 '17 at 10:44
  • @J.R. Yes, I know what you mean. The thing is 1) That hadn't been what she had said, 2) I re-wrote my comment to stangdon and deleted my previous comments to respond more appropriately, and 3) It still does sound kind of out-of-place to me there, heh. Perhaps if your example had been, "Every evening, my father sang while my mother and I cooked the dinner," I could see a place for "the" to contrast with what had come before, but perhaps this is another case of DAMS? Jan 10 '17 at 10:45

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