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In the Beatles song "Penny lane" there is such a verse:

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she's in a play
She is anyway

Why does it say "the pretty nurse" here? She wasn't spoken about before and thus is unknown to the listener.

Thanks!

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    It's a song. Songs are "allowed" to play fast and loose with the "rules" of grammar to achieve the lyric effects the songwriter wishes to achieve when the song is sung aloud. Jan 19, 2022 at 6:57
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    As @High Performance Mark says it is a song lyric and different rules apply as they do in poetry and literature. The reason Lennon and McCartney used the definite article here is probably to evoke a greater sense of involvement and immediacy but also to fit more closely with the more detailed descriptions of some of the other characters like "the banker" and "the fireman" who are introduced with an indefinite article but then referred to again. Don't worry about it, just listen to, possibly sing, and enjoy a masterpiece.
    – BoldBen
    Jan 19, 2022 at 7:25
  • Thanks for the explanation! In my native language there are no articles at all. And so I'm having troubles trying to grasp them. Most of the time it's clear to me, but sometimes I just don't dig it
    – in-u
    Jan 19, 2022 at 7:48
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    Using a definite article in English is appropriate when the speaker expects the listener to recognize what the noun phrase refers to. It's like using a proper name -- the pretty nurse and Evelyn can both refer to someone you're sposta recognize. If you don't, then you can conclude that you should have, and look for other clues. Jan 19, 2022 at 16:19
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    the pretty nurse, not the unattractive one, not another one. "the" can imply a comparison, too.
    – Lambie
    Jan 19, 2022 at 17:48

3 Answers 3

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She wasn't spoken about before and thus is unknown to the listener.

Although this is one criterion for using "the", it is not the only criterion.

The song is, at the point you quote, a description of Penny Lane and the characters in it. The writers assume that the listener is aware that "the nurse" is one of the characters that everyone knows. (You will note "a portrait of the Queen", who has not been previously mentioned but "the" is used because everyone is aware of the Queen.)

The alternative is that the lyric is not "the nurse", but "a nurse" - various versions can be found on the net.

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    So, the listener might not know the barber or the banker which are also sang about (and are first introduced with the indefinite article) in the song, but does know the nurse? This is kind of strange. I have no questions about the Queen, because everyone knows who she is.
    – in-u
    Jan 19, 2022 at 10:32
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    @in-u "because everyone knows who she is." If it is "the nurse" then we must assume that everyone in the Penny Lane area knows her,,,
    – Greybeard
    Jan 19, 2022 at 11:53
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    'A barber of Seville'? 'The Connecticut Yankee in the court of King Arthur'? Yes, contextual definition (or lack of it) is addressed by choice of article. I think I'd have gone with 'the roundabout', but it's probably this song that has elevated said roundabout's fame to 'the'-status. Jan 19, 2022 at 12:26
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Using the definite article makes the subject in question the central focus of the scene, and the thing to which attention is drawn.

Consider the lyrics:

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs

...Of every head he's had the pleasure to have known...

...In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass...

... And in his pocket is a portrait of the queen

The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray...

...And though she feels as if she's in a play...

...She is anyway

By way of analogy, if someone were to make a film of the song with the intention of following the emphasis of the lyrics, the scenes with the barber and the fireman might be static shots incorporating all the elements, but the scene with the nurse might close-up on her face and follow her with a tracking shot.

The viewer is meant to relate to her more personally, and notably, unlike the barber and fireman, we get a glimpse of her inner life and thoughts, rather than just her external interactions with the world.

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    Tangentially: your use of “…” is a bit puzzling. There's no omission here, nor even a pause other than is common between lines of a song. Feb 12, 2022 at 4:52
  • I suspect it was a reaction to what seemed (and seems) like abnormally large line-spacing between lines of quoted text versus regular text.
    – Mark Allen
    Apr 1 at 0:22
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The words that come after "the pretty nurse is selling poppies..." are "and though she feels as if she's in a play, she is, anyway..." which is a kind of surreal line, but the main reason it's "The pretty nurse" is that, from the point of view of the narrator, he's looking back on it in fond remembrance, and all the characters, the banker, the fireman, the barber, the nurse, are archetypes of his youth, and they remain so in his memory. It's almost as if they aren't actual people, who change over time, but are the lasting memories walking through this play the narrator talks about. It could be said that the time the characters are in, and the place itself, are forever in the narrator's mind as if in a timeless, never-changing bubble, in a play of continuous motion, which is how the narrator remembers things there. Therefore, they walk in and out as characters in a play, therefore the use of 'the' instead of 'a'- the nurse, the fireman, the banker - they're all types kept the same in his memory - in other words, HE, the narrator knows them all already, he's familiar with them all and can say, "the pretty nurse," 'oh, and here comes the pretty nurse...' since as the rememberer of this, he has previous acquaintance with them all. This is told through the narrator's internal point of view. "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes."

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    Feb 12, 2022 at 23:13

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