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I answered the below question and got it wrong. I wonder why? It was a fill in the blank type question.

How often do you go to ______ dentist?

I wrote "How often do you go to a dentist?" The correct answer is "How often do you go to the dentist?" I have never been to the same dentist in my life. I have only been to the dentist five times and each time is a different one.

Why is "a" wrong?

  • 1
    I drafted an answer, but I can't explain properly why Americans say the for general services (the bank, the doctor, the gas station). But we do. See these questions: a or the? – Davo Feb 15 '17 at 12:46
  • I've wondered this myself. I've just assumed it has something to do with "the" being a definite article and nouns like "dentist" or "bank" being so generally familiar to everyone, that the phrase "the dentist" sounds more correct than "a dentist" – am21 Feb 15 '17 at 16:13
  • There is nothing wrong with saying, for instance, "I need to see a dentist," "How often do you go to a dentist?" etc. "The dentist" may be more common in use, but "a dentist" is just fine. Your instructor was mistaken in claiming your answer was incorrect. In fact, most native speakers would ask, "When was the last time you saw a dentist?" (not "the" dentist). – Mark Hubbard Feb 15 '17 at 16:38
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In your situation, "a" is probably the more appropriate word since you find a new dentist when needed rather than sticking with any specific dentist. The fill-in-the-blank question was a poor one because it assumed typical practices, which are not universally applicable.

"A" dentist refers to any dentist. "The" dentist refers to a specific dentist, but it is commonly used to mean "your" dentist.

If you're talking about any kind of service provider for which usage isn't routine, and you select a provider when you need one, general practice is to use "a" when making a generic reference. For example, "How often do you hire a plumber?"

For matters that involve periodic service or visits, and people typically find a professional they like and stick with them, common usage is "the", meaning "your", when talking in general terms.

For people with ready access to health care, seeing a dentist typically means seeing a specific one. General practice is to use "the". For example, "How often do you go to the dentist?", meaning, "How often do you go to your dentist?" But there are exceptions.

If you have a new medical problem for which you have never seen a practitioner (or are in a new location and have not yet seen a local practitioner), and have not yet made an appointment with a specific one, you would say, "I need to see a dentist". Once you make an appointment with a specific dentist, you would say, "I'm going to the dentist", in this case meaning just a specific one.

If you were getting an initial exam at a new practice and the hygienist inquired generically about your oral health practices, the question might be different depending on the state of your mouth. If your teeth were in good condition and suggested that you get routine dental care, they might ask, "How often do you see the dentist?", assuming you have a dentist who you regularly use. If your teeth were a mess, suggesting that you don't get routine exams, they might ask, "How often do you see a dentist?", assuming you may not have a dentist you regularly see.

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The fact is, that it is only "wrong" in the context of the examination. In real life, normally native speakers would talk about going to "the dentist", but there is absolutely nothing grammatically or semantically wrong with the other sentence. It would just seem rather unusual and might jar slightly if heard by a native speaker.

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The difference is indeed very slight, and I wouldn't not say that "a dentist" is very wrong. If it was a place or a person I saw on a regular (even if very occasional) basis, I'd prefer to use "the". If I'm seeing a new person for the first time, I'd probably say "a".

"My foot hurts, I'm going to see a podiatrist, then I'm going to the accountant to file my taxes".

But saying "I'm going to see the podiatrist" is okay too.

If I had worn glasses for years, I probably would not say I was going to "an" ophthalmologist. I would say "I'm going to the ophthalmologist today".

But the question says "How often to do you see" and most people see the same dentist every time, so "the dentist" is slightly preferable.

protected by tchrist Feb 26 '17 at 14:48

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