Why do people say "I met him on the street" instead of "on a street", even though they're talking about a street for the first time and another person doesn't know what exact street they mean?

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    "The street" is an idiom. Used the way you have given, it is always the street. Just as "kick the bucket" is never "kick a bucket", and "beating a dead horse" is never "beating the dead horse". To use idioms, they have to be memorized as a whole, grammar be damned. Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 6:16
  • There are a lot of these generalising prepositional phrases (showing general rather than particular locations, situations, instruments etc) that take the. I go to work on the bus / train / tram (= by). I love swimming in the sea (contrast 'in the lake', which has the particularising the). The band is constantly on the road. She was promoted in the field. He's under the doctor. Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 7:49
  • I met him on the bus. I saw her in the classroom. They made out in the closet. America invented the A-bomb. The dog is a man's or woman's best friend. Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 8:21

1 Answer 1


When people say I met him on the street, they are usually not referring to a specific street. Instead, they mean I met him outside in the city as opposed to I met him at a party or I met him at a friends house.

Basically, they are using "the street" to refer to "the city/urban environment"

They are (almost always) not referring to an actual street because that would usually be irrelevant.

The similar usage is when people say He lived on the street. They are not necessarily referring to an actual street (or group of streets) but they actually mean he did not have a home to live in.

EDIT: as @medica mentioned in the comments section, "the street" is a single composition that you cannot take apart.

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    I understood the question. The reason they don't use "a" is because the street itself is irrelevant and it is used to represent the city environment. Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 5:53
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    @Alex - AJJ is completely correct in his interpretation and his answer. He has given you the rule. The street in this case is an idiom you can't take apart. This is not a simple case of definite vs. indefinite articles. Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 6:14
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    The use of the articles (the and an/a) is to a large extent idiomatic. If you look into a grammar you can see that one can give only general rules and in some cases there are some clear-cut rules. But it is impossible to describe the whole field simply because a lot of uses are idiomatic and you can only observe how the articles are used.
    – rogermue
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 8:57
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    I was trying my best to explain the idea behind the idiom, but as @medica correctly stated, idioms need not abide by grammar rules. You put "there's a grammar rule" in double quotations as if I explicitly said that, which I did not. I only tried to establish a meaningful connection between the idiom and the possible reason behind the composition as to better explain it. Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 9:05
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    Further evidence that "the street" is inseparable is that if you replace "street" with the synonym "road", the meaning changes dramatically ("on the road" means "while travelling"). Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 10:23

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