Instead of shaking her hand, kiss her on the cheek.

Why do we say "the" instead of "a"?

If we say "the", which cheek are we talking about? Shouldn't it be "a"?

  • Well, if someone were to suggest "kiss him on a cheek" one might think there are more than two cheeks....maybe four? – Mari-Lou A Jan 5 at 17:55
  • @Mari-LouA As a contrast to the more usual expression, "Kiss him on a cheek" deliberately implies that the speaker could not care less which cheek you should kiss him on, that perhaps the gesture is a pure formality or obligation. – Andrew Jan 5 at 18:12

There are cases when we use the definite article even though there is a pair of possible things referred to. In such cases, it does not matter much which particular thing is described:

Finally, Sheriff Hughes eased over to the side of the road and stopped the engine.

There are two sides, but it's irrelevant in this situation. It's just "the side of the road that a driver chooses to stop by in such a situation".

I looked him in the eye and said, "I don't give a rat's ass what you think".

Again, there are two eyes but still we say "in the eye". Quirk et al. write that the expression "I looked him in an eye" would be appropriate when spoken by, say, an ophthalmologist.

Again, there's the proverb "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". The beholder has two eyes, but we say "the eye".

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