17

Where do you live? -- I live in the city.

THE is used when talking about something which is already known to the listener or which has been previously mentioned, introduced, or discussed. But, the specific city where the speaker lives was not mentioned yet.

So, why is it used in this sentence?

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    "THE is used when talking about something which is already known to the listener or which has been previously mentioned, introduced, or discussed." -- Note the part "already known" to the listener. – Damkerng T. Jan 20 '17 at 21:19
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    @DamkerngT. He is from Connecticut. – Zakiya Jan 20 '17 at 21:39
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    The concept of "identiability" can be understood as "already known". Then again, it can be tricky what the listener can identify and what not (as you can guess, like the concept of countability, people from different languages might think differently). Having said that, I'm sure that at this point of your learning, you've already known many instances of thes that you automatically use the without having to think much about it, e.g., the sun, the wind, under the sea, put your hands in the air, open the window, take the elevator, etc. These are more or less identifiable in English. – Damkerng T. Jan 20 '17 at 21:40
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    @J.R. I understand your point of view. In my opinion, though, we can consider "all" uses of the definite article through the concept of "identifiability" no matter whether it's something unique (like the sun), it's something specific (even though it might not be unique, like the window), or it's something generic (like the air, and our the city), because it's identifiable, i.e., it's "known" to the user, either implicitly or explicitly. It's just my opinion though, and I don't force anyone to understand it the way I do. Then again, I don't think my idea is very far off. – Damkerng T. Jan 21 '17 at 20:48
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    @DamkerngT. - You didn’t happen to click on the dictionary link, did you? Your idea may not be very far off, but that misconception is something I've seen learners struggle with more than once on ELL. I think it’s better to let learners know there is more than one possible usage, rather than try to force-fit every usage into some single, oversimplified rule-of-thumb. – J.R. Jan 21 '17 at 20:51
13

In addition to what Cookie Monster said,

It's often the case that when someone says "the city", it's understood that they're referring to a nearby urban area that they both know about.

For example, imagine you live near some city, maybe Austin Texas. If you were at a bar and you met a stranger, and asked them where they lived. They might say

Oh, I live in the city

It would be understood in context that they don't just mean they live in some city, but that they live in the nearby city of Austin.

They might also say something like

I live in the suburbs

That is, outside the city, but not in the country. But even this phrase implicitly refers to "the city", because suburbs are connected to a city. So you know that they are referring to the suburbs of Austin specifically, not just any suburbs.

In addition, some regions have a single "the city" that a lot of people talk about. Some people on the east coast of America will refer to the city of New York as "the city", and might even capitalize it as "The City", just because it's such an important city. But that usage is less common.

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    What if the person asking is in another place or country, and they are talking only on the phone? – Zakiya Jan 20 '17 at 21:22
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    It depends on what each person knows about the other. If you both know that the caller lives in Los Angeles, they might say "I live in the city". If you didn't know where they lived, they would just say "I live in L.A.". They wouldn't say "I live in a city" usually, because it's just not a very interesting thing to say. Usually when you ask "where do you live", it's a more general question about what country or city you live in. A slightly strange conversation might be "Oh I see that you have a large truck, do you live in the country?" "No I live in a city" Hope that helps a little – Joe Pinsonault Jan 20 '17 at 21:29
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    Actually, you can say "I live in the suburbs," even if the person you are talking to has no idea if you are talking about Austin, New York, Birmingham, Sydney, or Berlin. – J.R. Jan 21 '17 at 11:09
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    yeah, agreed. I was just trying to say that in the context I described, you can tell that they're probably referring to the "the city" nearby – Joe Pinsonault Jan 21 '17 at 19:42
8

The speaker says that in contrast to living in the country (typically rural, sparsely populated areas). So, in our minds, there are two clearly defined (that's why we need the article there) concepts: life in the city and life in the country (you can actually extend this list by adding to it other places where people can live, you're not limited to only these choices).

Example:

— Where do you live?
— I used to live in the city, but now I live in the country.


PS: You can think of these two expressions as "ready-made", set phrases.

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    Yes, it is, but it all depends on the context. "I live in the city", "I live in the country" are just set phrases. – Michael Rybkin Jan 20 '17 at 21:10
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    But you can also say "I live on a farm"... +1 for the comment though :) – Mari-Lou A Jan 20 '17 at 21:10
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    @Zakiya good question :) english.stackexchange.com/questions/238713/… – Mari-Lou A Jan 20 '17 at 21:19
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    @Zakiya - If someone said to me "I live in a city", then I would almost definitely feel compelled to ask,"Which city?", or "Which one?" - whereas if someone says "I live in the city" then that would not, necessarily, make me feel like asking the follow up question. – Greenonline Jan 21 '17 at 3:00
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    If you were explaining why you'd never seen a cow before, "I live in a city" is fine, because it doesn't really manner which city. But if you were just outside a city, "the city" would mean the nearest one. – Brian Drummond Jan 21 '17 at 15:45
7

THE is used when talking about something which is already known to the listener or which has been previously mentioned, introduced, or discussed.

That's your problem right there, you've made the mistake of assuming the definite article is only used in that situation. (That's something English learners are often taught, but, unfortunately, it's not a hard-and-fast rule.)

For example, I can say:

The lion is the king of the jungle.

where I've used the definite article three times, without any previously-mentioned reference to flora, fauna, or royalty.

Here's another favorite example:

Ringo Starr played the drums.

The reason that sentence works (without any prior reference to a drum kit) is because the word the is also used to make a generalized reference to something (such as a musical instrument). In fact, take a look at the Wordnik page for the, and look at the multitude of uses besides denoting specified persons or things, such as:

  • to reference things that are unique: The Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre.
  • to designate natural phenomena, such as weather: The rain should move out tomorrow.
  • to refer to a certain class: Mother Teresa helped the poor.
  • to indicate a single noun is generic: I live in the city, but my brother lives out in the country.

In that last one, the words city and country are being used to stand for generic urban and rural areas, not specific cities and towns.

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