It's a question in a grammar app. "Where can I find _ post office please?". I chose "a", but it says "the" is the correct answer. Same problem with this question: "Let's go to _ cinema tonight." I know the answer is "the", but I don't know why "Let's go to a cinema" is wrong.

I thought when you specific mean which cinema or which post office you should use "the", otherwise "a/an" is also okay.

Could someone please help me?

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    The test was wrong. It's just that simple. – Fattie Mar 27 '14 at 8:25
  • if the test had said can you use the 'the' form, the answer would be "Yes." ("Because English is bizarre!" :) ) – Fattie Mar 27 '14 at 8:31
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    Don't believe apps, they can't possibly contain all the nuances and multiple contexts of the English language. You can use 'a' or 'the' for both those examples depending on what you are trying to say. – Mynamite Mar 27 '14 at 21:44
  • Many cities have several post offices. "The" might well land you in South Brooklyn. In such cases "a" is more likely to get you directed to the nearest PO. – Wayfaring Stranger Apr 11 at 14:07

Go to the — is idiomatic English used even in cases where the speaker isn't referring to a specific (definite) location, but rather seeking a specific kind of service or business. For example, we go to the post office, the hospital, the store, the hairdresser, and so forth. You can think of it as a kind of metonymy where “go to the store” means “go shopping” and “go to the barber” means “get my haircut.”

The same idea applies to similar constructions like “Where is the post office?” Following the same logic as above, this roughly means, “Where can I post my mail?” Likewise, “Where is the bathroom?” asks “Where can I use a bathroom?” (You could also parse this as “Where is the [nearest] post office?” but I think the idiomatic explanation is a better fit.)

Note that a native speaker would find the question “Where can I find a post office?” entirely natural, and in some cases might even prefer it. Thus, your answer to the grammar quiz wasn’t incorrect, strictly speaking. However, quizzes like that typically ask for the “best” answer, and in this case “best” likely means using the “go to the —” idiom.

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    Thanks for such detailed answer. I can accept the idiomatic expression sounds reasonable to me. I'll remember it. – Liam Mar 26 '14 at 9:42
  • Nice treatment of a tricky usage. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 26 '14 at 14:37
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    Superb answer, but the last paragraph is totally wrong, man. There are any number of extremely idiomatic constructions like "I'm looking for a damned post office!" "I've got to find a post office now!" "Where the hell is a post office?" Indeed, in may situations you would never, ever use the "the" form. Example: "What are you looking for?" "I'm looking for a post office." "Is there a post office around here?" etc. (You point out that “Where is a post office?” is not a sentence - but so what? there's 100 examples with "the" that are not sentences.)... – Fattie Mar 27 '14 at 8:29
  • in short, you have utterly perfectly explained why the bizarre 'the' form can work, but it's strange/whacky that you assert the 'a' form does not work. Just a thought! I'm looking for a mall right now. – Fattie Mar 27 '14 at 8:30
  • Hi Bradd, sorry if I've had to much coffee! :) But the situation is straightforward: You say: then I doubt they would find it strange – they might not even notice, and it would mean the same thing, practically speaking. that is a very strange way to put it. (1) they would not find it in the slightest strange. (2) it's inconceivable they would "notice" as the "a" construction is (if anything) more normal. (3) it's not the same thing "practically speaking", the "a" format is the normal thing and the "the" format is (also, perhaps surprisingly) colloquially correct... – Fattie Mar 27 '14 at 10:18

Yes of course you can say a Post Office. It simply means you don't care which Post Office you wish to visit.

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  • I agree, but I think “Where is the post office?” means exactly the same thing, and a native speaker is more likely to say it. I'm not sure exactly what the mechanism is for that, but I took a stab at explaining it in my answer. – Bradd Szonye Mar 26 '14 at 9:13
  • XD. I googled both a and the post office thing before I post this question. Looks like they're both used by many people. But I think I'd better remember the idiomatic expression for the test. Thank you;) – Liam Mar 26 '14 at 9:48
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    It just depends, I think, if you're assuming there's a single post office around. In a small town, or in a shopping mall, I'd ask for the post office, in the centre of a large city, I'd ask for a post office. – Neil W Mar 26 '14 at 9:56
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    @Neil This complements Bradd's answer nicely. I'd just add that in the case where you're in the middle of nowhere and are desperate, you'd choose 'Where can I find a Post Office?' – Edwin Ashworth Mar 26 '14 at 14:40
  • "I agree, but I think “Where is the post office?” means exactly the same thing, and a native speaker is more likely to say it." That's totally wrong, Bradd. Much as say Neil suggests, it's very simply a case that in certain subtle, specific situations, one may be more colloquial than the other. (But that applies in both directions.) – Fattie Mar 27 '14 at 8:32

"The" is used with a singular countable noun when you are referring to a transport system, form of entertainment, service or media. This includes the police, the fire brigade, the army, the bank, the post office, the doctor, the dentist, the butcher’s, the cinema, the theatre, etc.

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    This doesn't really answer the question (and it's best not to simply cut-n-paste text from another source without citation). – KillingTime Apr 11 at 12:59

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