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I often watch in movies saying:

  • I am going to see the doctor.

Instead of saying “a doctor”.

So I keep asking myself, “which doctor is meant?

Because he didn’t mention any doctor before saying “the doctor”.

What is your explanation in this case?

  • 4
    (tongue in cheek) So obvious they don't simply mean the doctor, but The Doctor. – Mausy5043 Dec 24 '17 at 20:40
16

First, I must address what you said here:

Because he didn’t mention any doctor before saying “the doctor”.

You can read in another ELL answer that there are in fact other uses for the definite article besides "alluding to things that were previously mentioned." As this Wordnik page shows, the word the has several meanings and usages.

Your example is a tricky one, though. Strictly following rules of grammar, one might think that "a doctor" might be more grammatically correct than "the doctor", but I think the latter is more idiomatic.

Personally, I might use any of these:

  • I"m going to see a doctor.
  • I'm going to see the doctor.
  • I'm going to see my doctor.

I'd be most likely to use the first one when I'm on my way to a clinic or emergency room where I've never been before. And I'm most likely to use the last one when I have a scheduled appointment with my primary physician.

I might use the one in the middle when neither one of those is true. Perhaps I'm going in as a walk-in patient where my regular doctor usually works, but I don't even know if he'll be there today.

As I searched for a definition that might fit his context, I found this one in NOAD:

the (article) informal used instead of a possessive to refer to someone with whom the speaker or person addressed is associated : I'm meeting the boss

I think that one captures the "I'm going to the doctor" usage rather well. It may not be a personal relationship, but the physician-patient relationship as a whole is understood well enough that the usage of "the" sounds both normal and idiomatic.

  • 10
    Don't know about the grammar rules, but al least in US English it's common to use "the" when it's a generic thing: e.g. "I'm going to the grocery store" when there are several grocery stores and the listener doesn't need to know which. So if I tell someone "I'm sick and going to the doctor", it's because the particular doctor I'll go to is irrelevant. – jamesqf Dec 24 '17 at 19:28
  • I agree with James here. – No don't shown my real name Dec 24 '17 at 20:38
  • I agree with James here as well. – J.R. Dec 24 '17 at 22:20
  • There's a bit of historical context here too - once upon a time it was extremely rare to have more than one doctor available, so one would simply be going to "the" doctor. That reinforces the other reasons for using it, thus making it the "most" idiomatic form. – Will Crawford Dec 25 '17 at 2:23
4

A) I am going to see a doctor.
B) I am going to see the doctor.
C) I am going to the doctor.
D) I am going to the doctor's office.
E) I am going to the doctor's.
F) I am going to see my doctor.
G) I am going to see a new doctor.

Choice A does not mean a random doctor. It simply does not say (in this sentence) what doctor. Usually the speaker is talking about the disease or problem, and is not interested in talking about "which doctor I will use".

Choice B,C,D,E do not mean "my regular doctor". The phrase "the doctor's" is a standard idiom, which can mean any doctor's office. Many people use clinics, where they do not know what doctor they will see. They still say they are going to "the doctor".

Only choices F and G tell us if the doctor you are visiting is your regular doctor, or a stranger.

Neither H nor J says anything about what doctor you are visiting:

H) Sorry, I can't talk right now. I am at a doctor's office.➡️doesn't use the idiom "the doctor's" so you need office
J) Sorry, I can't talk right now. I am at the doctor's ➡️. uses the idiom

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