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Here's a sentence that I don't understand. There's nothing before this example. This is the first part of this paragraph.

Forgetting to take my ID with me to 'the' bank is something that I am definitely guilty of. One time I needed to make a bank transfer urgently for my company, but ~~.

I have no idea why 'the' is used in the first sentence. Isn't it more right way that I use 'a bank' because the bank have never mentioned before? How is it possible to use 'the' in the beginning of a sentence despite it being the first mention of the thing to the readers?

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    The comments under this related question may help to (partially) answer yours: see Batman in the theatre. I recall reading/hearing the idea in a university English grammar class that certain places take the definite article as a holdover from the past when towns only had one such place (e.g. the hospital, the post office, the bank) and it was implicit that the speaker was referring to a specific location (since it was the only logical one he or should would be referring to). – pyobum Feb 10 '15 at 6:12
  • That's also a good point. "He's in the hospital" is very common in AmE (BrE uses "he's in hospital"), although "he's in a hospital in Chicago" would also be typical. That is a bit confusing, isn't it? :) – BobRodes Feb 10 '15 at 6:23
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You could definitely say "a bank" in the first sentence and it would be grammatically correct.

I think the difference is that saying a means that it's any bank in the world, while the implies that it's his bank where he has an account.

Forgetting to take my ID with me to the bank [that I go to] is something that I'm definitely guilty of.

  • What if I have no bank accounts at all, and have arrived in a new city? Could I say: "I'll pop out to the bank to set up an accout."? Or "I hate going to the bank, that's why I have no bank accounts"? I mean, could we refer to "the bank" as an institution of society, not as this or that particular enterprize? – CowperKettle Feb 10 '15 at 6:26
  • You can. For the first example you'd be implying that there's only one bank or that you'd already selected which bank you were going to bank with. However you would ask, "Could you recommend a bank for me to open an account at?" I think saying "I hate going to the bank" still implies you had a bad experience at some specific bank in the past and chose to stop using banks. You could more generally say, "I hate banks." Banking as an institution of society would be "the banking institution" but I may be misunderstanding your question. – Catija Feb 10 '15 at 6:35
  • To add to that, you could say: "I'll pop out to a bank and set up an account" if you didn't have a specific bank in mind. – Catija Feb 10 '15 at 6:36
  • Thanks for the answers! I really meant, could we refer to "banks in general" with "the bank", like to "pubs in general" in this BBC example ("Shall we pop out to the pub for a quick drink before the lecture starts?" -- -- "..But I have not specified the pub either. It could be one of many, yet I have used the. I have used the because I am thinking of a typical pub as a general feature of our environment.") – CowperKettle Feb 10 '15 at 6:39
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    I'm not British, so "Popping down to the pub" isn't something we do but I'd always had the image in my head that it meant their (the person speaking and the person/s they're speaking to) regular spot they always went to (eg: the spot near their office or neighborhood or the pub that's where all the fans for their football club hang out), rather than just any pub. So, in that sense, I'd actually disagree with the author of that example. – Catija Feb 10 '15 at 6:48
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"The bank" is assumed to be one's own bank. Look at these:

I have to get to the bank before it closes.
I have to cash some traveler's checks. Do I need to find a bank or can I do it at the hotel?
Why don't you drop by the house on Tuesday afternoon and we'll talk about it.
I'm in the market for a new house.

The bank is my bank, the one where I keep my money. In the next sentence, I need to find any bank, if I can't cash the checks at the hotel I'm staying in. Next, "the house" is my house. Finally "a house" is any house, which when I find it will be the house that I want to buy.

A refers to an indefinite instance of a noun, the refers to a single specific (hence a definite) instance of a noun. In some circumstances, such as these, using the definite article means that you are referring to a specific instance of a noun that is implied. That "implied" part seems to be where you're having difficulty.

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"A bank" means any bank.

  • I need to get to a bank.

This means the speaker needs to get to any bank they can find. There is implied uncertainty for which bank it will be.

"The bank" refers to a certain bank, or a certain branch (brand) of banks.

  • I need to get to the bank.

This means the speaker needs to get to a predetermined bank, or at least that they know what banks can potentially service their needs.

Both of these sentences are grammatically correct. The difference between them is subtle, and native speakers understand the distinction without ever considering the possibility of the writer wording it the other way as you have.

If anything, "the bank" suggests both the speaker and the listener know which bank the speaker intends to use. "A bank," on the other hand, could be used in the same situation, but also in a different situation where the speaker is talking to a stranger who does not know which bank the speaker uses. I hope this helps.

  • The listener's existing knowledge usually doesn't factor in. It's almost entirely about whether the speaker has a particular bank in mind or truly any bank will do. – cHao Feb 10 '15 at 12:41

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