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Native speakers use "the bank" even if they are not speaking about the specific bank, but because with certain institutions the definite article is used to talk about the activity. As in "I went to the bank yesterday." Can I use these words with the too if I am talking about the activity: airport, café, restaurant, station, cinema library, museum? For example, "I went to the airport/cafe/restaurant/station/cinema/library/museum yesterday."

I have also learnt that it's not wrong to say "I went to a bank" if I am talking about an unfamiliar one. Can these words be used with the indefinite article in the same way? I mean these: airport, café, restaurant, station, cinema library, museum. If I am talking about unfamiliar ones. Here are my examples.

  1. "I went to an airport yesterday, but I had to stay there for hours because my flight was delayed."

  2. "I went to a café/restaurant with my friend yesterday."

  3. "I went to a station to meet my friend."

  4. "I went to a cinema." ( I don't think "a movies" is correct.)

  5. "I went to a library to borrow a book."

  6. "I went to a museum with my family last week."

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    "A movies" is incorrect because "movies" is a plural countable noun.
    – Sydney
    Nov 9 '21 at 19:33
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    These words don't refer to the activity you would do at the place. "The library" doesn't mean "borrowing books". They refer to the general concept of the place itself. I don't know the term for it, but some words like these, as well as "the radio", "the bathroom", "television", "the dictionary" and so forth either have "the" or no article where you'd normally expect "a/an". This structure is often used for common things that there might only be one of in a community or home, but not necessarily.
    – gotube
    Nov 10 '21 at 5:41
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    @gotube (Well—an exception might be made for "the bathroom" as a euphemism—you might "go to the bathroom in your pants," which would be quite confusing to take literally...) Nov 11 '21 at 18:44
  • Related: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/49324/…
    – Doug Deden
    Nov 11 '21 at 22:33
  • @AndyBonner, I often go there in my pants, somewhat literally. Of course I might have to remove the pants when inside, depending on the activity I'm doing there. (so not like this)
    – ilkkachu
    Nov 12 '21 at 8:39
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Yes, the station, the library etc. can mean 'the local one' or 'the one I usually go to'. This is less common with café and restaurant, probably because there is likely to be a wider choice of eating places in the speaker's local area - though Brits do talk about going to the pub!

Conversely, we're unlikely to refer to an airport/station because we go to the one that serves our region/town.

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    "I went to a cinema" seems unusual to Americans because we only use "cinema" to refer to movies and theaters collectively or attributively. Americans will say "I went to the theater", "I went to a theater" and "I much enjoy French cinema". "I went to the cinema" is probably considered only slightly unnatural by most American speakers. Nov 10 '21 at 3:41
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    If it's obvious which museum you went to, e.g. you are somewhere with only one museum, or perhaps you work at a particular museum, then "the museum" would be okay. If you are in e.g. London, it would be odd to say "I went to the museum" because there are many museums - "a museum" would be more appropriate.
    – TenMinJoe
    Nov 10 '21 at 13:07
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    In a place served by several airports or railway stations, or a city with several museums, you would probably name the one in question (unless the person you were speaking to already knew which one you meant). I can't imagine anyone saying "I'm picking up my friend from an airport" - it would sound as though you were being deliberately mysterious by not saying which one. Nov 10 '21 at 15:13
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    If you're going to see a play or a film, you go to the theatre or the cinema, but you might walk past a cinema (just to confuse you). Nov 10 '21 at 18:38
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    You can use "a" with any of these, but usually you'd use "the" for anything specific enough to not cause confusion. As a native American english speaker, it would be more natural to say "the museum". However, if you're giving directions ("where can I find info on old planes?"), you might be more specific by saying "the aircraft museum" if there's only one in the area / that you know of, or "an aircraft museum" to be more general.
    – Cullub
    Nov 10 '21 at 19:03
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I'm not sure I agree with Kate Bunting's answer. Consider the following:

  1. I went to the bank
  2. I went to the restaurant

The other answer argues that in either case (albeit the second case being less common) I would be referring to the one I usually go to. I would argue instead that they actually have different meanings.

In the first example, "I went to the bank" is referring to the concept of the bank (i.e. a generic place where I can do generic banking activities). In this way it is similar to "I took the train"; it doesn't matter which train I took because any train serves the same generic purpose of getting me to my destination.

In the second example, "I went to the restaurant" implicitly assumes that my listener knows which restaurant I mean. There is no generic meaning here because it does matter which restaurant; each one serves different food, has different prices, different atmosphere etc.

Context is important. Using your example of the airport:

"What are you doing today?"; "I'm taking my aunt to the airport" - airport is generic; the listener doesn't care which airport. What matters is today's activity.

"We need to be at the airport in 30 minutes" - the listener knows which airport I mean. It's a specific airport we need to be at.

You can identify which type of case it is by seeing whether or not you could substitute "the" with "a"/"an" and have the sentence still carry a similar meaning. E.g. contrast:

"I'm taking my aunt to an airport" (overall meaning is still the same although it is now not very idiomatic) with "We need to be at an airport in 30 minutes" (meaning is significantly different; the specific airport is now unknown).

Sometimes the distinction can be very subtle and you simply have to learn the specific case by heart instead of attempting to figure out a rule. For example, you might think that "pub" should behave in the same way as "restaurant", but you'd be wrong. "I went to the pub" actually has the generic meaning. That's a cultural thing; when a Brit says they are going to the pub what they really mean is they want to go for a drink and where they get it from is an unimportant detail.

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    Very much. "I went to the clinic", "I went to the beach" are great examples of detailing a concept rather than a location.
    – BowlOfRed
    Nov 11 '21 at 1:01
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    @JBentley, do you mean here that the first sense below is possible but it's not idiomatic and that it's used in the generic sense, like "the airport" , however it is unlikely to be used, while the second means we need to be at an airport where "an" means "any"? This is the part I am asking about: "I'm taking my aunt to an airport" (overall meaning is still the same although it is now not very idiomatic) with "We need to be at an airport in 30 minutes" (meaning is significantly different; the specific airport is now unknown). Nov 11 '21 at 5:34
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    @AntoniaA Yes, that's right.
    – JBentley
    Nov 11 '21 at 10:24
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    @Tim With the train you don't care which train it is as you simply want to get to your destination. Most people don't go to a restaurant simply to serve the bodily function of eating. They go because they are in the mood for a particular cuisine or atmosphere. The specific restaurant you go to makes a difference, the specific train does not.
    – JBentley
    Nov 11 '21 at 10:26
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    @AntoniaA Yes but note that while you could use a/an with station or airport, the situations where you would do so are fairly rare. There are not many times where you need to be at an airport (any airport). It's easier to imagine with a station. Perhaps you are driving in a group and someone lives on the other side of town and asks if you could drop him at a train station (any station) so that he can use the public transport system. Museum/cinema is a bit like restaurant/pub. In each case the specific one matters for the former but not so much for the latter.
    – JBentley
    Nov 11 '21 at 11:21
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Yes, either a definite (the) or indefinite (a/an) article is valid in any of your sentences.

The distinction is that if you go to a place, then you might expect your listener to ask “Which one?”.

“I went to a museum with my family last week.”
“Which museum?”
“The Museum of Natural Science”

“I'm going to a wedding this Friday.”
“Whose wedding?”
“Jack and Jill's.”

But if you go to the place, then you expect your listener to figure it out from context, or assume a “default” that's the one that you usually go to.

  • “I went to the bank [where I have an account].”
  • “I met my friend at the airport [where her plane landed].”
  • “I went to the library [that's the only public library in my hometown] to borrow a book.”
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    I disagree with the second point; even if I live in a city with multiple airports, I would never say "I met my friend at an airport" if I am talking about a local airport where they arrived. I would always say "the airport" to be general, or name the specific airport. This doesn't mean I expect my listener to figure it out from context; if they want to know which one, or course they can ask. However, to make it more complicated, if I have a friend that I met for the first time while we were both having layovers in some distant city, then I would say "I met my friend at an airport".
    – brendan
    Nov 11 '21 at 9:28
  • @brendan do you mean either a definite (the) or indefinite (a/an) article is valid in any of my sentences except for the airport example and probably cinema too? Nov 11 '21 at 10:21
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    @Antonia A I would say airport, station, and library should always be "the" unless it is not local. For "museum" I would consider "a" and "the" almost interchangeable. In American English, "the movies" or "a movie" are both fine. Café/restaurant should usually be "a" unless you know that your listener knows which one you mean.
    – brendan
    Nov 12 '21 at 11:59
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I think it's worth a special short answer about the word "cinema." As a word for a place where you go to see movies, it has become rare in US English, where you would say "movie theater." If you go to see a movie, and it's not important which movie, it is common to say "I went to the movies." If you're in the US, talking about a specific movie, and want to say that you went out to see it, you might say "I saw it in the theater." (Using the word "the" in just the way that you are talking about.)

Sometimes, especially in writing or fancy contexts, "the cinema" is another way of saying "movies as an art form."

(Edited based on the comments.)

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    As an aside: "cinema" is still perfectly normal and current in British English. No-one here calls them "movie theatres" and the word "theatre" on its own only ever means a place where live plays are performed. The preview things that say "In theatres now" (which are obviously the same for the global audience) are the only context I have ever heard this usage in the UK.
    – Vicky
    Nov 12 '21 at 7:31
  • Thanks for clarifying that. I was pretty sure "cinema" was more common in the UK (and probably the rest of the world) than in the US, but good to know it's a pretty sharp usage difference. Nov 12 '21 at 17:06
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I think we would say "I went to the bank/hospital/theater/airport/supermarket/pharmacy/beach" because in all of these cases, the experience of going will be similar no matter which particular bank/hospital/etc. you actually went to.

However, it is "I went to a restaurant/museum/boutique" because with these, the experience depends on what sort of restaurant/museum/etc. you're going to.

This would also explain the difference between "I went to the cinema" and "I went to a movie." What cinema you went to doesn't affect the experience, but what movie you went to does.

And then back to "the pub." A pub is a specific type of restaurant, so once that is covered, the experience can now be assumed. The same can be said for "I went to the art museum."

On the other hand, if you say "I went to a supermarket," I would expect you to continue by telling me something interesting about that supermarket. For example, "I went to a supermarket once that had giant singing milk bottles."

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