Which article (an/the) is correct in this context?

This is an exercise we had to complete in our grammar class. I filled it up like this:

Write the missing articles, if one is needed.

A: Who is the man talking to C?
B: I'm not sure. I think he is a doctor.
A: He looks familiar. Do you know where he works?
B: I think he was the doctor who looked after C when she was in __ (zero article) hospital.
A: No—he is the assistant nurse.

My teacher said that all of it is correct, with only one exception. He says that it should have been an instead of the in the last blank. His reasoning is that ‘assistant nurse’ is being mentioned for the first time. And there are thousands of assistant nurses; we're talking about no one in particular.

But, I think that a particular ‘assistant nurse’ is in question—the one who looked after C when she was in hospital.

So which one of us is actually correct?

  • 2
    If you read the exchange by skipping lines 3 & 4 (the bit about where he works) by reading only lines 1, 2, 5; that would imply they are talking about the man's profession (is he a doctor, is he an assistant nurse). However, if the context includes his place of employment, then the 5th line can be interpreted as "No - he is the assistant nurse <at the hospital>".
    – Phylyp
    Mar 17, 2017 at 7:06
  • 2
    Also, looking at the tense used in line 4 "he was the doctor who..." indicates they're talking about C's past hospitalization; whereas line 5 has the present tense, which would give weight to the fact that line 5 isn't referencing C's hospitalization discussed in line 4.
    – Phylyp
    Mar 17, 2017 at 7:07
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. Mar 17, 2017 at 10:07
  • FYI: "in hospital" isn't idiomatic in my experience, though it may be idiomatic elsewhere (possibly it's a British-ism?). I would say "in the hospital." Note that this is true even though "hospital" hasn't been mentioned yet, because whether or not a noun has been mentioned yet isn't actually a reliable criteria for selecting between indefinite and definite articles. Mar 17, 2017 at 17:21
  • 2
    @SohaFarhinPine A quick google search seems to indicate that my guess that this is a difference between British and American English was probably correct. Mar 17, 2017 at 20:13

2 Answers 2


You and your teacher have both proposed valid articles there. Your teacher is wrong to insist that it be "an".

Your use of the would be understood to refer to the person who is normally or usually or typically a member of the medical team, the person in the role of "assistant nurse". The definite article implies that an assistant nurse is expected to be there, that an assistant nurse is de rigueur.

Your teacher's use of an would be understood to refer to just one of many assistant nurses, but to no one in particular, and it does not have the implication that one would customarily encounter an assistant nurse as part of the medical team.

  • I agree with this answer wholeheartedly. Moreover, I think it’s important to stress that the O.P.’s justification (it should have been an instead of the, since assistant nurse is being mentioned for the first time) is not really relevant.
    – J.R.
    Mar 18, 2017 at 20:25
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    @J.R. It's NOT my justification; it's what my teacher said. Mar 19, 2017 at 8:48
  • No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, Deferential, glad to be of use, Politic, cautious, and meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool.
    – TimR
    Mar 19, 2017 at 11:32

If the sentences are in all in the same context, then if you said a doctor in the second sentence, then it should also be an assistant nurse in the fifth. Whereas, corresponding to "the man" in the second and "the doctor" in fourth, it should be "the nurse", making it a definite answer.

  • 1
    I recognize her face from somewhere. I think she's an actress. Wait, I remember now! She's the actress who played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.
    – TimR
    Mar 19, 2017 at 11:40
  • @Hectorvon - [...] he was the doctor who looked after C [...] an noun followed by a adjectival clause or phrase takes the as article. (Because it is definite-the clause/phrase describes it). Jun 17, 2017 at 19:02
  • I get your line of reasoning now, but it's not obvious whether there was the definite, singular nurse so the indefinite article would not be wrong in any case. Your interpretation would be very likely in this particular case, but then, shouldn't it be "was the nurse"? If half the sentence is omitted, the context is indefinite by default, I'd assume. I amended my answer.
    – Hector von
    Jun 17, 2017 at 20:51

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