Which article should be used in this sentence?

Ben's sister took him to a/the library to borrow a book.


Ben's sister took him to a/the library to borrow a book.

In your sentence, the is much more likely. It doesn't have to be a library mentioned previously. It just needs to be a library obvious (to the people involved) from the context.

Almost every town has a library. "The library" refers to the local library. However, if Ben habitually visits an out-of-town library, "the library" might refer to that library instead. Either way, the sentence does not need to specify which library is involved.

In the context of a school, "the library" means the school library - regardless of whether it's been mentioned. No one would say "which library?", because they would assume it was the school library, and if the teacher said to an unruly pupil, "Go to the headmaster's office", no one (probably not even the unruly pupil) would think to ask "Which headmaster?".

If a town has two local hospitals and neither of them has any particular connection to the family, and a woman tells her husband one morning that it's just been announced on the news that the "the hospital is being closed", he will probably not know which one she means. (She wouldn't, however, say "a hospital is being closed" - that would be ridiculous, unless this is a country where no hospital is ever closed, and it's the fact that of a hospital anywhere in the land closing that is shocking.) But if the town has one local hospital, or if the family has a close association with a particular hospital, and the woman says that "the hospital is being closed", her husband will immediately know (or assume that he knows) which one she's talking about.

If the husband remarks "The school have sent this letter home", his wife is unlikely to ask which school. She will assume he's talking about the school their kids go to. However, if their kids go to different schools, she may well ask which school. In that case, he would probably have specified. He would not say "a school" (even in his original sentence); rather, he would probably say "Jane's school" or "the upper school" or "North Street" (if the school is called North Street School, or is commonly known as such).

In short:

Ben's sister took him to the library to borrow a book.

This is the most likely option, and the people involved will know (or assume they know) which library is being referred to.

Ben's sister took him to a library to borrow a book.

This is correct English but less likely to be spoken in practice. It tends to suggest there is no library familiar to the family nor local to them. Even if they were staying away from home, we would probably say "the" and assume it meant the one nearest to where they were staying.

If there was a library familiar to them but they had visited a different one from usual, we might then use a but we would be likely to qualify it with an adjective. Alternatively (and perhaps more likely) we would mention the library by name or location:

Ben's sister took him to a very big library to borrow a book.

Ben's sister took him to an old library to borrow a book.

Ben's sister took him to Loughborough library to borrow a book.

Note: From Thomson & Martinet, A Practical English Grammar (4th ed., 1986, p19):

The definite article is used: ... Before a noun which by reason of locality can represent only one particular thing:

Ann is in the garden. (the garden of this house)

Please pass the wine. (the wine on the table)

Similarly: the postman (the one who comes to us), the car (our car), the newspaper (the one we read).

From Huddleston & Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002):

Bring me the ladder

Use of the definite article here indicates that I expect you to be familiar with the referent. [...] Where did you park the car [...] illustrates the frequent case where the addressee can be assumed to be familiar with the referent. [...]

i. Put your cup down on the arm of your chair.

ii. He married the daughter of his bank manager.

An (arm-)chair has two arms, but the definite article in [i] is in order on the assumption that it doesn't matter which one you choose. [...]

[...] It could be that the bank manager has in fact two daughters, but the is again appropriate on the assumption that you don't need to ask which Which one?: perhaps the other is already married, or too young to marry, perhaps you don't know that there are two, or perhaps it simply doesn't matter.

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  • I disagree with some of what you write here. If it doesn't matter what library to go to I would say, "I went to a library". Likewise, if I were at school and we had a library there the library wouldn't purposely mean the one that is at school. I wouldn't assume that either. You are speaking only from personal opinion. Notice that the sentence says, "to borrow a book" and not the book so it could be any book in whichever library. If it were the book then it would a 100% be the library. – SovereignSun Sep 21 '17 at 7:17
  • It does not surprise me that you disagree with some of this, since I disagree with some of your answer, too, which is why I posted my own. You say I am speaking "from personal opinion", but I'm speaking from several decades of personal experience. – rjpond Sep 21 '17 at 7:25
  • I'm speaking only from the point of view of grammar rules. Look, imagine that you always buy Tuborg beer and you went to a shop to buy it, would you ever say, "I went to buy the beer"? No! – SovereignSun Sep 21 '17 at 7:27
  • The library would only be correct if it was mentioned earlier, otherwise a library is perfectly clear and correct. – SovereignSun Sep 21 '17 at 7:30
  • There are circumstances in which you could say "I went to buy the beer"; for instance, if you were helping to organise a party and it was implicitly understood, whether or not mentioned in the conversation, that beer would be required. Or if you bought "beer" every Friday, you could say "I'm going to buy the beer", and by implication that would mean "the beer that I buy every Friday". Of course, "a library" is correct, but in most cases people will say "the library" and in many cases that will be more idiomatic. I have not referenced any grammar texts, but neither have you. – rjpond Sep 21 '17 at 7:41
  • a library means some library that wasn't mentioned before, which wasn't identified.
  • the library means a specific library that was mentioned before, which was identified earlier.
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  • then which one is correct a or the? – Shahidan Shaari Sep 21 '17 at 6:07
  • @ShahidanShaari Whichever is accurate for you. Both are correct and convey a different meaning as you can see from my answer. – SovereignSun Sep 21 '17 at 6:08
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    Actually it should be "Ben's sister took him to the library to borrow a book." We don't need to know which library it is, as long as Ben's sister knows. Which would be necessary to take him there, right? – user3169 Sep 21 '17 at 6:11
  • @user3169 Why do think that it's the only choice? – SovereignSun Sep 21 '17 at 6:12
  • It is different when directly stating you are going somewhere. "I am looking for a library that is open in the evening." vs. "I am going to the library to do some research. Put yourself in the position of the subject. Is the "library" unique? Searching, no. Going there, yes. – user3169 Sep 21 '17 at 6:15

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