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Before I started renting the workshop at the open-air museum, I would crawl out of bed in the morning, get dressed and go straight into the garage, which I'd converted into a studio. Now I get the train and a bus, so I have to get up early..."

What does she mean by the train and a bus? Why isn’t it “a train and a bus” or “the train and the bus” or “a train and the bus”?

screenshot of text from Ready for First, 3rd edition

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    An example of the same construction in a perhaps less confusing context: "I'll have the fish and a small salad" when ordering at a restaurant. This might result in several small fish, or even in several different kinds of fish; but there will only be one salad. – Simon L Rydin Myerson Jul 13 at 9:22

10 Answers 10

36

In context, the speaker is comparing her former commute--walking to her own garage--to a new commute that requires one travel segment by rail and one by bus. I wish I knew more of the source for the speaker in the original article (which appears to be p. 8-9 of McMillan coursebook Ready for First) as this usage may be colored by her background and the nature of the transportation network in her region.

First, I disagree with the other answers claiming that "I take the train" is a reference to a specific train or train time. That just means the rail network. For instance, in NYC dialect, "the train" is the most native way to refer to the subway system. Prior to COVID-19, I would have described myself as "taking the train to work"--even though on a given day I might choose any of six or seven different trains running on three different lines, departing at three- to seven-minute intervals. (In NYC, the vast plurality, 40%, of commuters use the subway; taking the train is just a background assumption for daily life. I believe this is true in most US cities that have decent rail/metro systems.) You'll see this in broader/non-regional usage as well wherever bus systems are common: without further context, the expression "take the bus" refers to using the bus system generally, not to a particular bus line or departure time ("A: Should we drive to the game? B: Nah, I wanna have a few beers, let's just take the bus"). In fact, if I wanted to emphasize a departure time or a particular bus, I would probably say "my bus"--example: "Hurry up and get your shoes on, if we don't leave in the next five minutes I'll miss my bus."

So that leaves the question of why "the train" but "a bus." I read "a bus" as emphasizing an unusual extra burden of multi-modal commuting, which is expressed as a discrete additional task to be accomplished. I perceive this speaker as saying "If it wasn't bad enough that I have to commute by train, once that commute segment is finished, I also have to take a bus" or "Even after I've taken the train, there's still a bus ride I have to take."

Thus "the train" is just referring to using a particular transit network, but "a bus" is an extra thing added on. Using the indefinite article 'a' highlights it as task to be accomplished, instead of just making use of a particular type of transit system. Think of it as making the bus the "straw that broke the camel's back".

Edit 2020-07-13: Some answerers and commenters have mentioned that repeating either 'the' or 'a' for the pair would be disfavored for reasons of prosody--that it "just doesn't sound right" to repeat them. However, Google NGram for the combinations of these phrases does not support this assertion: "the train and the bus" and "a train and a bus" (using the same article for each) are roughly equally common with each other, and both are far more common than "the train and a bus" individually. This suggests that using "the" and then "a" must have some sort of more precise meaning; the choice wouldn't be automatic. I can't point to a rule or a study that says my reading is the correct one--and certainly others are possible!--it's just the context and psychology that seem most obvious to me, in trying to explain a phrasing choice that is not the result of any explicit rule I was ever taught.

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  • I concur with your general disagreement with the other answers and your described usage mirrors my usage and experience. Until the context gets specific, "the" and "a" are going to be interchangeable in most circumstances – Yorik Jul 10 at 16:51
  • I agree with using "the train" as "the railway network" but to me "a bus" suggests that it is a single bus rather than having to change somewhere in the bus network as well. – Dragonel Jul 10 at 17:38
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    There was this theory that every language has similar amount of "complexity". As a non-native, I feel that English stuffs a good chunk of that into idiomatic the-noun and a-noun constructs. Some make sense, some you memorize slowly one by one, and the remainder is like a hundred scattered blinking red lights that just disturb the native listeners/readers. – kubanczyk Jul 11 at 11:18
  • You can also say "miss the bus" which implicitly refers to the particular bus you were trying not to miss. – user253751 Jul 11 at 13:59
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    My (RP - British English) dialect agrees entirely with you. Taking "the train" certainly doesn't imply a particular train. – Francis Davey Jul 11 at 22:24
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This would mean that there is only one train she can get, but several possible buses.

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    Agree. I normally plan my train trip, so there's "one" train, "the" train. But afterwards I would get "any", "a" bus. I think writer knows there's /generally/ "one" train, "a" train. But afterwards she waits for any bus. The frequency of trains to buses normally means there's more buses. – newfivefour Jul 10 at 14:34
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    @newfivefour Agree completely. In addition to the additional frequency of buses, there's also the fact that they tend to be less punctual (in my experience, at least). Trains will usually leave pretty close to their scheduled time, but bus schedules are more affected by traffic. A bus that arrives at 9:20 might be a very late 9:00 bus, a somewhat late 9:10 bus, or an on-time 9:20 bus. In any case, you just get on whatever bus arrives first, which might be of indeterminate (and irrelevant) scheduling origin. – Nuclear Wang Jul 10 at 17:31
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    Disagree. "Take the bus/train" is perfectly natural, even when there is more than one bus/train. "Take a bus/train" is also fine. But mixing the two in one sentence is strange. – user253751 Jul 11 at 14:01
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    ‘The train’ can just be used as a concept and doesn’t imply there is only one option. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Jul 11 at 14:28
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    @newfivefour You could also get multiple busses that get you home, but usually you can't take different train routes (maybe? i don't commute on trains) – Azor Ahai -- he him Jul 12 at 4:29
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It is a bit hard to explain as it is highly contextual. I am explaining using an example: Imagine the situation where one train leaves the station at each hour. Therefore when you have a ticket for 6:00 am, you should get the train that leaves at 6:00 am (you are talking about a specific train). On the other hand, you don't have a specific bus in mind when you are talking about your plan after getting off the train. You are going to find a bus afterwards and continue your travel.

It signals your certainty about the entity (bus or train) that you are talking about. If I had no ticket and had a relaxed and tentative schedule I would say that I am heading to the station get a train first and then get a bus. My suggestion is to see which article (the or a) sounds and feels better in the context of your text.

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    It means she is talking about a specific train so probably at the time she goes there is only one train heading off to her destination. It depends on her mental image of the situation so it can be both ways depending on the speaker. – CoderInNetwork Jul 10 at 5:22
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    In Britain, commuters tend not to have time-restricted tickets, which are priced cheaper to encourage casual travellers off 'peak' services, particularly in the morning. However, they will usually have a routine and a particular, definite, tightly timetabled train in mind. For a bus outside the terminus, on the other hand, especially in big cities, you arrive at the bus stop and just wait for one to come along. You know there are so many each hour, but you don't know exactly when it will turn up. This will form part of your journey plan, especially if you have a job with fixed hours. – Michael Harvey Jul 10 at 6:35
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    These technicalities affect how we talk about modes of transport, which was the point of the question (why the train but a bus?) – Michael Harvey Jul 10 at 7:42
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    There might also be several bus routes from a main railway station you can choose that all go past your destination before they diverge, perhaps even one a minute. But coming in from the suburbs, if you don't catch a particular train, you are royally, er, done for. – Weather Vane Jul 10 at 7:42
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    I wrote 13 in one hour in the peak, that's just to Victoria, plus a similar number to London Bridge, and also about the same to Thameslink. – Michael Harvey Jul 10 at 19:51
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I have a different explanation. "Get the train" probably doesn't here mean "get a specific train", it means "Use the train network", the same way you would say "take the subway" in NYC or "get the tube" in London (who says "get a tube"?). For instance, if asked "How do you normally travel from London to Birmingham?" the answer might be "Well I normally take the train"; clearly there isn't only one train and it does not therefore refer to a specific train.

Similarly you can say "take the bus" (or, perhaps less often, "get the bus") to mean use the bus network - consider again the London to Birmingham example above. Similarly "take/get the coach" and "take the plane".

Quite why the speaker has decided "get the train" but "get ... a bus" I don't think we know. They carry a slightly different implication (use the train network, catch a single bus) but perhaps it just sounded good to her?

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Most replies are over-thinking it. The author considers it poor style to repeat either 'the' or 'a'. So she uses one of each. That's all. They're interchangeable. As a native English speaker I see no difference between them.

I live within walking distance of two bus routes. I might 'take the bus' or 'take a bus'.

There's also a rail station, offering both suburban and national services. Again, whichever I was using, I would 'take the train' or 'take a train'. No difference.

I could also take the bus to the train station, then take the train. Or use 'a'. Or one of each.

No difference.

What I MIGHT do if travelling to a destination on a branch line is 'Take the train' to Sittingbourne then 'take the little train' to Sheerness-on-sea.

Londoners also differentiate between 'the train' (local services on mainline track) and 'the tube'/'the underground' (the metro system), though as integration of the two systems progresses the distinction may die out. (To complicate matters even further, we also have the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and the Croydon Tramlink. And in New York you can 'take the A train'. I guess you can 'take an A train' too?)

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  • This seems like a more likely answer than some of the others. Switching words to avoid repetition is a common literary practice. The change in articles may also indicate a change in emphasis. – barbecue Jul 11 at 23:59
  • @barbecue 'change in emphasis'. Please explain? – Laurence Payne Jul 12 at 16:48
  • Often in popular literature, and specifically in the example provided for this question, the writing is done in a conversational style, where the writer tries to convey the sense of speaking the words. Speaking allows many kinds of emphasis, pauses, changes in tone, inflection, etc. which are more difficult to write. When writing informally, people often choose words which align with certain speech patterns, allowing the reader to supply the emphasis internally. Some authors are quite deliberate about this, though I doubt this example is such as case. – barbecue Jul 12 at 17:26
  • Example: I write "Welp" instead of "Well" when I want to express a specific emphasis on the word which changes the tone of the sentence. – barbecue Jul 12 at 17:28
  • But you're suggesting no particular emphasis between 'the' and 'a' here? Which IS what we're talking about! – Laurence Payne Jul 12 at 17:59
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Consider the following situations:

Now I get a train or a bus: this implies that now you can get any train(not specified which train) or any bus(listener doesn't know which train or a bus you're talking about)

Now I get the train and the bus: this is used when you're highlighting the specific bus or a train. (The listener knows which bus or a train you're talking about)

Now I get the train and a bus: Here there's only one specific train and multiple choices of buses to choose from.

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Please read the entire answer. In English (at least in the USA, but I think elsewhere), for transportation that uses fixed routes, like trains, we normally use the.

I took the train to work.

There is no "specific train" being referenced, but the railway that is fixed, upon which or by which trains run on, on a fixed route.

If we refer to transportation that does not usually run on a fixed route, we generally use a

I take a taxi to work.

Taxis are usually not limited to fixed routes.

How about the bus?

Buses (or busses if you prefer) usually run on a fixed route; thus we would expect

I took the bus to work. (Compare: I took the bus to Miami.)

Again, this refers to the fixed route, along which travel several buses a day.

However, as stated elsewhere, the author can choose to say 'a train' or 'the bus'. English gives you plenty of options. In fact, it could mean the traveler (or traveller) takes a bus on one of several fixed routes, but this seems to me to be trying to forcefit the language (even if into the general usage stated here).

Obviously, one could say

I took the taxi to work.

But this is a different usage. Now the speaker assumes his interlocutor knows which taxi he took (maybe he has mentioned it before).

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  • I disagree with this and agree with other answers, which say that "the train" and "the bus" refer to the train and bus as concepts, or perhaps the entire train or bus network. Compare: "I took the Tube/Metro/L/U-Bahn to work" – user253751 Jul 12 at 14:30
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    @user253751 I don't think they're mutually incompatible--this answer is valuable in pointing out that "the" articles usually refer to systems, which are identified as systems by the presence of fixed routes. – Tiercelet Jul 12 at 22:26
  • 'I took the taxi to work' implies that you own multiple vehicles, one of which is a taxi. – Laurence Payne Jul 13 at 17:34
  • @LaurencePayne doesn't imply ownership at all – green_ideas Jul 17 at 5:39
  • @green_ideas OK, if you want to nit-pick, it implies you have access to several vehicles, one of which is a taxi, and that is the one you chose to drive today. – Laurence Payne Jul 17 at 15:41
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The X means the question which X is important. A(n) X means the question which X is not.

the train

It's important that you need to know which train to take.

a bus

It's not important that you need to know which bus to take.

Reasons why this could be:

  • There's only a few trains and you can't get to the same destinations on each train

  • The bus goes to the same destinations as other buses, so you don't need to worry so much about which bus.

  • There's many buses on the route you need to take, so you don't have to be worried about which bus (on a specific time) you need to catch. Whereas you have to be worried about which train (on a specific time) you need to catch.

It's totally possible for a given city/place you might say a train and the bus.

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  • I think this is the reason for the idiomatic articles. It's a hangover from when trains were less frequent and buses more frequent than they are these days. Where trains are very frequent, such as on a metro-style "turn up and go" service, a train is quite likely. [Corollary: in London the Tube refers to the Underground system; a Tube refers to one train in a very frequent service.] – Andrew Leach Jul 11 at 8:43
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    @AndrewLeach Would one not say "I take the train to work" in London? – user253751 Jul 11 at 14:00
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While training as an English teacher in the UK I was taught to use 'the' when referring to public services, which in this case includes buses and trains. What I wouldn't do is mark down somebody for using 'a' instead of 'the' since it should be obvious to the listener that saying, 'I took the bus...' is implying that only 1 bus exists (similar when saying, 'I went to the hospital',another public service. However buses and trains have defined routes/destinations whereas, say, taxis do not. So saying, 'I took the taxi to a friend's house' suggest that there is only 1 taxi service to that destination, which is wrong. If the original poster did make a mistake, it's being inconsistent with the grammar.

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I would interpret this as a very subtle hint about how the author feels about both methods of transportation and about how familiar they believe the reader is with them.

The train implies that this is a train (line or system) well known by the author and they expect the reader to be familiar with the train system they are talking about. As in the train that most people take to work every day.

A bus sounds like a slightly pejorative way of referring to the bus, implying that it's some random bus line in a random suburb, that the author doesn't expect the reader to know about because it isn't really worth knowing. As in a bus that happens to run in that part of the city.

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