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Is there a general rule showing when I should use "a" and "the" with places?

I can say "I went to a restaurant." but I cannot say "I went to a park."


What about the word "shop"? My book says I should always say the just as in the words the cinema, the airport.

I know I am in the shop would mean a place where I usually shop. But is a bit confusing for me because a listener might not know what shop I am exactly in and I can still say:

  • I am in the shop / I am in the shoe shop / I am in the shopping mall?
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    Why do you think you cannot say "I went to a park"? There's nothing wrong with that sentence. – John Feltz Sep 3 '18 at 2:30
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You can use definite and indefinite articles (the, a)for places when describing improper nouns (park, school..)

However, for proper nouns such as countries and cities and particular places (France, Dubai, McDonadld's) you must not use any article.

Hope that clears the confusion.

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I'd say the key difference lies in the assumption that one park, cinema, library, or grocery store is as good as another. It doesn't matter which cinema you saw the movie at; it just matters that you saw it. You could say that "the grocery store" is more an idea than a place.

"A" with any of these nouns wouldn't be ungrammatical; it would just change the emphasis and indicate that the location was unfamiliar to both the speaker and the listener. "I stumbled across a park." "I need to find a gas station."

Restaurants tend not to use "the" because every restaurant is unique. However, just like with any other noun, a specific location will be "the Chinese place we noticed driving by" or "the Wendy's by my house."

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