Consider the following exchange:

A: How are you getting to Seoul?
B: I'm taking the train.

Note B's use of the. Usually, we use the when the listener knows which one. So, why doesn't B say a?

  • Interestingly enough, this phenomenon as it relates to vehicles isn't universal. It's "the train", "the subway", and "the bus", but "a plane", "a boat" (?), and "a car". The first thing that comes to mind is that the first group is usually operated by one company (or other organization), while there are multiple airlines, boat owners, etc., but that seems like a very odd distinction to draw. – waiwai933 Jan 24 '13 at 1:06
  • I'm going to guess that trains, subways, and buses run on very regular schedules, while airlines are (and old-fashioned steamship lines were) less predictable, and cars run on no schedule at all. Even with airlines, although you may plan on catching a plane to New York, you speak of taking the red-eye, a daily commuter flight, to New York. And you may say, vaguely, "Oh, I don't know how we'll get to Amsterdam. Take a train, I guess." But I'm not sure enough of this to make it an answer. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 24 '13 at 2:16
  • @waiwai933. When I go to Britain, I take the ferry (and the train), but a bus across Dublin (even though it's a scheduled service, it's a because it's local transport). – TRiG Mar 3 '13 at 20:58

This is just an hypothesis, but I think it may have something to do with operating according to a fixed schedule at a high frequency. Public transport does this. Because of that, one vehicle is as good as the next: we do not distinguish between one bus and another as physical vehicles, but only as entries in a schedule. As all buses are more or less interchangeable, I think our subconscious may be thinking of them as one bus, coming again and again, at least in the context of taking the bus (not when you say "I was almost run over by a bus", or "a bus was blocking traffic"). Or we may treat the bus line as a single phenomenon. The same applies to trains, subways, ferries, and monorails, although in certain situations a/an is used—there are always exceptions. But aeroplanes don't seem to operate according to such a fixed schedule and route. And taking a plane is just more of a happening.

As an alternative, it is possible that this the is a remnant of phrases like "I will take the 6 o'clock train to London", which was probably more common when trains ran less frequently, waited a little longer for delayed passengers, and when taking a train was generally more of an event. When indicating a that you were going to travel by train, you were generally picked up, and so you would more often say "I'm taking the x o' clock train". People could call the station to inform whether your train had arrived yet, when they were supposed to pick you up. They knew at what time the six-o'-clock from London arrived. Later, as train schedules became more frequent, and people were not always picked up from the station any more, mentioning the time of departure became less universal, but people had got used to saying the train, so they kept that while leaving out the time. I must say that I find this hypothesis less convincing, but it is a possibility, mainly because of the definiteness in modern "I'm taking the train".

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  • As you said, your answer is just a hypothesis, but since your first paragraph covers all cases I can think of, I'm accepting your answer on the basis of practical usefulness. – Scott Severance Jan 24 '13 at 6:04
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    @ScottSeverance: I am honoured. – Cerberus Jan 24 '13 at 6:51
  • This was basically the same thought I had when I read the question. Though it is curious why planes are considered so much less scheduled. They certainly have fixed schedules; are they considered less reliable? More prone to delays, perhaps? – Ken Bellows Jan 25 '13 at 17:56
  • @KenB: That, and their frequencies are much lower than those of most trains. It doesn't feel like a fixed schedule to most people; they don't take planes nearly as often: it is not such an insignificant event as a train ride. In addition, the fact that a plane travels through the air and can use different routes may make it less "fixed". Lastly, a plane is a huge thing, and it takes hours to board one; planes vary noticeably, and boarding one is a real "event" for most people. – Cerberus Jan 25 '13 at 18:50

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