I have problems with definite and zero articles in the following sentences:

  • "I met a man you were talking about over THE telephone yesterday."
  • "The wounded were examined by THE doctor and sent to PRISON."

These examples are from my textbook. The textbook says that these articles should be set this way. I don't understand why. Namely:

  • Why in the first sentence we use "the telephone" while in the second "prison" with zero article? Why are they different?
  • Is it grammatically correct to say "The wounded were examined by DOCTOR and sent to THE prison?" For example, in case the prison is before the eyes of a speaker.

I am looking for a strong grammatical reference. Simple rules-of-the-thumb proved to be inadequate, I cannot answer my doubts.


2 Answers 2


It might be helpful to read this question about doctors and this one about prisons.

We say "on the telephone" and "on the radio", but "on television". The answers to this question try to explain this curious discrepancy!

  • My parents' generation used to say "on the television". There's a whole Monty Python sketch based on the phrase.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 2, 2022 at 15:38

The definite article is used when referring to something specific. There are many telephones in the world - your telephone is a specific one. You would use the definite article with 'prison' if you were speaking about a specific prison, for example "the prison nearby holds 1000 prisoners".

The 'zero article' is used with mass nouns - when referring to the things in general. For example, "water is a liquid" means all water. It is common to use 'prison' as a mass noun when referring to the prison system as a whole, or to the concept of being imprisoned, for example, "he is in prison". Actually, 'telephone' can be used that way, too - for example "we communicate by telephone".

  • It's not about specific items; it's an idiomatic usage. You can say "Scott called me on the telephone" without referring to a specific telephone; "on the telephone" is an idiomatic expression that means the same as "by telephone". Similarly "I got there on the train" doesn't mean a specific train, it just means you went on some train that goes there.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 11:31

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