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I have difficulties with using "the" in certain situations.

  1. For example, which one is correct? "I was lying on the couch the whole day" or "I was lying on couch the whole day"?

  2. More general question: can I use "the" before certain objects if I haven't mentioned them in a conversation, assuming that the other person will get which object I am referring to? For example, can I say: "Hey! I fixed the car yesterday!" meaning "I fixed MY car yesterday" or "I fixed the car that we worked on together two days ago"?

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Using articles is very complicated and too broad to explain. However, your two specific questions could be answered briefly.

  1. Not many people have multiple couches in their home. When someone says, "I was lying on the couch," chances are very low that another question such as "Which couch are you talking about, the one in your living room or on the second floor?" could be asked after that. On the couch is very idiomatic and using the is a normal practice. The linked Ngram Viewer supports this explanation.

  2. In your second example, the same explanation could be applied and it will entirely depend on context. If someone says, "I fixed the car," some could ask back, "Which one, yours or your wife's?" Therefore, it would be better (it is primarily opinion-based) to use possessives such as my car, my wife's car or our car. Using the is only encouraged when people could assume which object is being referred to as in your first example.

It is extremely difficult to decide whether to use articles between a preposition and a noun. Many of them are idiomatic such as on foot, by bus and on the internet, etc. They need to be learned on a case-by-case basis.

Edit: Please take a look at the valid comments made by Colin Fine. I inserted (it is primarily opinion-based) after "it wold be better" in bold.

  • True. After so many years of learning and speaking English articles remain the biggest problem for me. – trollpidor Dec 22 '15 at 10:22
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    Use of "the" in this way (i.e. "the" deliberately not-further-qualified) is also a (coded) signal of informality from speaker to listener (slang). If the listener has to ask "which", the informality is broken. Compare the extreme example, "I called up the old man yesterday" (i.e. his father). – Jeff Y Dec 22 '15 at 10:47
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    I partly agree with this answer, until you start stating your opinion as fact: "it is better to use possessives...". Is it? Who says? It may be clearer, but often it makes no difference; and even if it does make a difference the difference may not be relevant to the conversation. – Colin Fine Dec 22 '15 at 12:45
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    @trollpidor: no, you are not necessarily assuming that the other person knows: you may know perfectly well that the other person does not know which one, but you are assuming (or maybe even implying) that it doesn't matter; that you know which one, but the other party does not need to. – Colin Fine Dec 22 '15 at 12:46
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    Again, who says it is better? According to what metric or standard, and why is that metric or standard relevant? – Colin Fine Dec 22 '15 at 12:54
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Your example "I was lying on the couch the whole day" presupposes that there is a couch present that your hearer can identify; otherwise, you would have said "I was lying on a couch the whole day". Of course, you know that. But there is an obvious difficulty with this account of the presupposition connected with using "the" rather than "a", and that is you can use "the" in talking to, or writing to, someone who is not on the scene at all and could not possibly know about the presence of a couch there.

So here is what is going on (and this holds for presupposition generally). You can use presuppositions which assume certain things are true about a scene in order to convey to a listener that those things may be assumed to be true. If you want to convey that there is a single couch in your surroundings that you could lie down on, you'll use "the couch". Otherwise, if you don't want to convey that information, you'll use "a couch".

So the difference between using "a couch" and "the couch" in your example does not have anything directly to do with what is actually in your surroundings at the time you're referring to, but rather what you would like your listener or reader to assume about those surroundings.

  • Ok, I understand. Anyway, both versions are correct – trollpidor Dec 23 '15 at 7:28

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