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The types of vacations that people take nowadays are very different from vacations taken in years gone by. I guess the main change has been the shift from domestic vacations to vacations overseas. In the past, most vacations used to involve getting away to the beach with the family.

In this sentence, I think writer used definite article to differentiate the beach that used to be in the past and the beach that exists nowadays, of course 'the family' goes without saying. but to be honest with you, I'm not sure why definite article is used even though writer has never mentioned it before. Could you help me figure it out? And what differences were made if I used indefinite article 'a'?

  • It is me that put the quotation marks.@CopperKettle I just modified – jihoon Feb 12 '15 at 16:47
  • here's one mention of "the beach" at ELU. – CowperKettle Feb 12 '15 at 16:51
  • This is actually similar to this question: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/49324/… In short, they're thinking about a specific beach when they talk about it, so the is appropriate. – Catija Feb 12 '15 at 16:51
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    @jihoon It's the same in other common expressions, e.g. "in the air", "in the club", "in the wrong". (I believe that you've probably heard most of them.) – Damkerng T. Feb 12 '15 at 18:27
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    This is not a specific beach. Some words routinely get a "the", no matter if a specific place is in mind or not, no matter if it's been mentioned previously or not: I am going to the movies; she is going to the opera; Eddie is going to the beach; Maureen went to the hospital. Related. – J.R. Feb 12 '15 at 19:47
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In both of the bolded cases, the noun does not refer to particular cases of the things mentioned, but to the classes of those objects in general. This is the OED's second sense of "the":

II. Referring to a term used generically or universally. With a singular n[oun].... 19b. Generally, with the name of anything used as the type of its class; e.g. with the names of musical instruments, tools, etc.

This usage is commonly seen with musical instruments, where the whole class of instruments is referred to.

Bill plays the clarinet.

Could mean that Bill is playing a particular clarinet right now, but more commonly will mean that Bill has the ability to play the class of instruments generally known as "clarinet".

Bill is playing a clarinet.

This definitely means that Bill is in the act of playing a singular clarinet. (Not a particular clarinet that has otherwise been identified, but any given one.)

There were five different instruments on the table. Bill grabbed the clarinet.

In this case, a particular clarinet is being referred to (and its identity has been previously established in context, as one of the five instruments). You could think of the word "clarinet" as having a different meaning in this sentence than in the first: here meaning an instrument of the class, and in the first sentence meaning the class itself.

To use "a beach" in this case would not be incorrect, but I think would be less common in a context like this; the different sense would be the same as the difference between my first two clarinet examples. In this case, the listener (or at least this native AmE listener) would get a vague sense that the speaker is being unnecessarily specific: the context is in broad general terms about "most vacations" "in years gone by", so it makes sense to refer to "the beach" in the sense of "the class of objects known as the beach". "A beach" would almost give the sense that all those people on all those vacations had been going to a particular beach (but from context it would be clear that that was not the case, so not really an error).

On the other hand, I think one would never use "a family" in this case. I think the reason is that everyone has one family (more or less), so it would seem strange to make a non-specific reference: it would give the sense that one might go with someone else's family. It would be fine here to say "one's family", though. (I don't think there's a nuance difference between the two because the class of potential families one might go the beach with is a class of one.)

  • Great answer. On the last paragraph - if I were writing about a class of people who have more than one family - say children of divorced parents - I would still say "they go to the beach with the family." If I wanted to remind the reader of their having multiple families, it would become "they go to the beach with one of their families." – Adam Feb 12 '15 at 20:57
  • Also - Interesting point in the penultimate paragraph, that in this case, using "a" would actually be more definite/specific/restricting than using "the." – Adam Feb 12 '15 at 20:58
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    Thanks! I wasn't able to nail down the "family" thing as well as I would like: you're right, someone might have more than one family, but you still wouldn't say "a family". It may be because even in the most extreme case, the set of possible families will be very, very small (compared to all the families in the world). It may also be that "family" is inexact (if a brother stays home, and one of the cousins comes along, it's still "family"). – Matthew W Feb 12 '15 at 23:02
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    The specificity of "a" is odd, it's true; and its context-dependent. If I say "I'm going to a beach", that may not be any more specific than "the beach", but if I say "I'm at a beach", then (IMO) that is more specific, because surely I'm talking about a particular beach. Whereas "I'm at the beach" would still be non-specific, unless I was referring to a particular beach. To my mind, that sentence means a different thing if I say it on the phone to someone in another country, versus if I shout it to someone just out of eyesight. English is a funny language. – Matthew W Feb 12 '15 at 23:09
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I'm afraid it's rather confusing. For this particular phrase, either "the" or "a" can be used either to refer to the general or the specific, depending on context.

As a matter of general usage, "getting away to the beach" is a general term, referring to the overall experience, while "getting away to a beach" is more likely to refer to a specific beach. This is not an iron-clad rule, though, since "a beach" could be a shortcut for the phrase "a beach, any beach, anywhere where there is sun, sand and water", although it has connotations of a particular class of beaches, indicating that the speaker has some particular set of beaches in the back of his mind.

Likewise, "the beach" can refer to a particular beach if it occurs in a particular setting. "We've rented a cottage on a Caribbean island for a week in January, so don't bother looking for me then: we'll be on the beach." This assumes, of course, that the island only has one beach, but you get the idea.

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There are rules for the use (or non-use) of articles (a/an/the), and then there are idiomatic exceptions.  For example,

  • Andy went to jail.
  • Andy is in jail.

    Andy is a prisoner in some jail.

But,

  • Betty went to the jail to visit Andy.

    The” is used here because Betty did not go to a/the/some jail for the “usual reason” (being incarcerated).  We use “the” here even if there are multiple jails nearby and the specific one has not been identified earlier in the conversation.  The fact that the purpose of the trip is to visit Andy is enough to identify “the jail” as the one where Andy is locked up, even if we don't know which one that is.

    (Prison works the same as jailBed, church, court, college and school are analogous; university may be handled differently in AmE and BrE.)

 

  • American:
    • I'm going on vacation.
    • Charlie is on vacation.
  • British:

    • I'm going on holiday.
    • Charlie is on holiday.

    The person is taking a break from his usual occupation (usually, but not necessarily, employment or school), usually, but not necessarily, traveling away from his usual residence.

 

  • American:
    • Dave is in the hospital.
  • British:

    • Dave is in hospital.

    Same as jail/school.

 

  • Ed went to the store to buy some bread.

    Ed went to some store.  We use “the” here even if there are multiple stores nearby and the specific one has not been identified earlier in the conversation.

    Shop, market, mall, office, cinema, theater, movies (idiomatic for cinema or movie theater), forest, jungle, woods, mountains, ocean, sea, and beach are similar.


TL;DR

“The beach” is an idiom that means “some beach”.

References

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