Could anybody please help me read this part of an article correctly. The author, I think, says Santiago is a typical city and each of the typical cities has one hospital. I don't quite understand first why Santiago is called a typical city; Santiago is the capital of Chile and it's large. Second do typical cities only have one hospital? I presume my difficulty is rooted in my understanding of 'a typical city.' Does this mean a prototypical city; thus, a prototypical hospital (representing the more than just one hospital)? But if this reading were the case, the consistency would break in the next paragraph, which is quoted next. Certainly the author is considering an element noun here, not its prototypical noun.

(13) a. As soon as my cousin arrived in Santiago, she broke her foot and had to spend a week in the hospital.

It has been suggested to us by Paul Kay, Tadashi Kumagai and others that use of definite NPs to denote non-unique locations such as those in (13) and (15) may be explained in terms of frames, in the sense of Fillmore (1977, 1987). For example, in (13a) the mention of Santiago may give rise to a frame for a typical city, which includes a hospital.

However, this does not seem to account for all cases:

(16) a. The first thing we did upon arriving in Santiago was to go to the park and have a relaxing picnic lunch.

In (16a), use of the park seems felicitous despite the fact that there is typically more than a single park within a given city.

  • I was thinking possibly the author regarded (13) as felicitous provided the speaker's inferred intent was that the hearer did not know the size of Santiago. If this is true, 'a typical city' is an element noun, and nobody would be surprised Santiago (a typical city) only has one hospital.
    – Sssamy
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 12:48
  • I think the idea is that you can use the if the existence of a particular thing is on the record by virtue of having been mentioned previously, or by virtue of being common knowledge. The author is suggesting it can be used here because you only need to know that Santiago is a city to realise that it must have a hospital. You don't need to know Santiago itself, or the hospital itself. When he says typical, I would take that to mean that Santiago can be assumed to have everything a normal city has - including a hospital - not that it only has things you can find in any city.
    – user339660
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 13:07
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    Have you grounds for thinking that 'prototypical noun' and 'element noun' are actual terms describing distinct groups in linguistics? I use 'a prototypical noun ...' to cover 'exists in singular and plural forms corresponding to singular and plural referents / inflects for plural / not capitalised / occurs freely after sensible determiners...'. // The prototypical city has transport systems / supermarkets / sewerage / power supplies / over a certain number of residents / one or more hospitals/museums/libraries/art galleries/cinemas / perhaps a cathedral or two / perhaps a stadium or two.... Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 13:19
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    'Go to the park / the seaside / the theatre / the cinema / the hospital / the jazz (!) // work / school / hospital ... are set expressions, not demanding that a particular park, beach, theatre ... jazz session ... school etc be referenced. Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 13:25
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    It says a hospital, not exactly one hospital. Cities with five hospitals also have a hospital. Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 19:47

1 Answer 1


The article tests three common explanations for use of the definite article in (American) English — familiarity, uniqueness, relevance — and find them wanting, especially in expressions in “prototypical” contexts.

I say American English because one of the most salient differences to British English is that Britons go to hospital and are in hospital for treatment, while Americans do so with the definite article, even when the hospital is not necessarily uniquely identifiable. If Britons go to a hospital for any other reason, say, to visit a patient, then the article is used. This suggests the obvious: what’s topical is that the person is ill or injured enough to require inpatient care, not where they are being treated.

Having a picnic in the park is similar: the picnic is topical, not which park. It's as generic as in the idiom “It’ [not] a walk in the park.”

The authors also mention means of transport — take the stairs, the bus, the train — all along fixed routes. I would argue that the most convenient route to a specific destination qualifies as unique.

I would also argue that if A asks B to open the window, rather than a window, A means the window closest to B, even when there are several windows, since how much air are you going to get from a window several feet away?

  • You are right with one exception re BrE. Where has John gone?He was here a minute ago. Answer: He gone's to the hospital to see his sister.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 14:57
  • @Lambie: Please note the phrase for treatment.
    – KarlG
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 15:01
  • Yes, I saw that. I am saying that you did not discuss the possibility I mentioned. You only mentioned the treatment idea, with which I agree entirely. That still leaves one with having to deal with the the issue.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 15:12
  • @Lambie: This edit should take care of it. BTW, what's with the grapes? Are they washed beforehand?
    – KarlG
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 15:42
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    @KarlG Thanks, that’s fine with me. There are a lot of answers on ELU that try to force these uses into the unique/specific paradigm, but hopefully they will get outvoted.
    – Xanne
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 2:51

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