“the assistant nurse” vs. “an assistant nurse”



Which article (an/the) is correct in this context?

This is an exercise we had to complete in our grammar class. I filled it up like this:

Write the missing articles, if one is needed.

A: Who is the man talking to C?
B: I'm not sure. I think he is a doctor.
A: He looks familiar. Do you know where he works?
B: I think he was the doctor who looked after C when she was in __ (zero article) hospital.
A: No—he is the assistant nurse.

My teacher said that all of it is correct, with only one exception. He says that it should have been an instead of the in the last blank. His reasoning is that ‘assistant nurse’ is being mentioned for the first time. And there are thousands of assistant nurses; we're talking about no one in particular.

But, I think that a particular ‘assistant nurse’ is in question—the one who looked after C when she was in hospital.

So which one of us is actually correct?

Soha Farhin Pine

Posted 2017-03-17T06:54:26.520

Reputation: 1 075

2If you read the exchange by skipping lines 3 & 4 (the bit about where he works) by reading only lines 1, 2, 5; that would imply they are talking about the man's profession (is he a doctor, is he an assistant nurse). However, if the context includes his place of employment, then the 5th line can be interpreted as "No - he is the assistant nurse <at the hospital>". – Phylyp – 2017-03-17T07:06:08.847

2Also, looking at the tense used in line 4 "he was the doctor who..." indicates they're talking about C's past hospitalization; whereas line 5 has the present tense, which would give weight to the fact that line 5 isn't referencing C's hospitalization discussed in line 4. – Phylyp – 2017-03-17T07:07:35.840

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– Soha Farhin Pine – 2017-03-17T10:07:38.260

FYI: "in hospital" isn't idiomatic in my experience, though it may be idiomatic elsewhere (possibly it's a British-ism?). I would say "in the hospital." Note that this is true even though "hospital" hasn't been mentioned yet, because whether or not a noun has been mentioned yet isn't actually a reliable criteria for selecting between indefinite and definite articles. – Kyle Strand – 2017-03-17T17:21:37.907

@KyleStrand If you are a patient at the hospital, you are "in hospital". On the other hand, if you happen to be a relative of a hospitalised patient or just at the hospital, you are "in the hospital". I hope I could make myself clear. – Soha Farhin Pine – 2017-03-17T18:01:23.810

@SohaFarhinPine I understand the intended meaning of the phrase, and I see how that could be a useful distinciton; nonetheless, I don't think I've actually heard it used by the native speakers I know, most of whom speak approximately the same dialect. We do in fact use "in the hospital" to mean "in hospital". – Kyle Strand – 2017-03-17T20:10:36.453


@SohaFarhinPine A quick google search seems to indicate that my guess that this is a difference between British and American English was probably correct.

– Kyle Strand – 2017-03-17T20:13:42.577

@KyleStrand My school has a British curriculum, so it's not surprising. I suspected the same, when you couldn't understand the reason behind my not putting the before hospital. – Soha Farhin Pine – 2017-03-18T06:53:15.713

@KyleStrand Both kinds of English seems to agree that it's correct to say we go to bed, go to sea, go to school, and so on, when referring to the general practice, but adding a definite article specifies which sea and which bed and which school. (On the other hand, everyone says that we "go to sleep": few native speakers would refer to a specific night's sleep as "I went to the sleep".) – Soha Farhin Pine – 2017-03-18T07:02:29.193

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– Kyle Strand – 2017-03-18T15:25:02.217



You and your teacher have both proposed valid articles there. Your teacher is wrong to insist that it be "an".

Your use of the would be understood to refer to the person who is normally or usually or typically a member of the medical team, the person in the role of "assistant nurse". The definite article implies that an assistant nurse is expected to be there, that an assistant nurse is de rigueur.

Your teacher's use of an would be understood to refer to just one of many assistant nurses, but to no one in particular, and it does not have the implication that one would customarily encounter an assistant nurse as part of the medical team.


Posted 2017-03-17T06:54:26.520

Reputation: 116 610

I agree with this answer wholeheartedly. Moreover, I think it’s important to stress that the O.P.’s justification (it should have been an instead of the, since assistant nurse is being mentioned for the first time) is not really relevant. – J.R. – 2017-03-18T20:25:00.873

1@J.R. It's NOT my justification; it's what my teacher said. – Soha Farhin Pine – 2017-03-19T08:48:45.943

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, Deferential, glad to be of use, Politic, cautious, and meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2017-03-19T11:32:43.893


If the sentences are in all in the same context, then if you said a doctor in the second sentence, then it should also be an assistant nurse in the fifth. Whereas, corresponding to "the man" in the second and "the doctor" in fourth, it should be "the nurse", making it a definite answer.

Hector von

Posted 2017-03-17T06:54:26.520

Reputation: 740

1I recognize her face from somewhere. I think she's an actress. Wait, I remember now! She's the actress who played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2017-03-19T11:40:18.087

@Hectorvon - [...] he was the doctor who looked after C [...] an noun followed by a adjectival clause or phrase takes the as article. (Because it is definite-the clause/phrase describes it). – Soha Farhin Pine – 2017-06-17T19:02:24.993

I get your line of reasoning now, but it's not obvious whether there was the definite, singular nurse so the indefinite article would not be wrong in any case. Your interpretation would be very likely in this particular case, but then, shouldn't it be "was the nurse"? If half the sentence is omitted, the context is indefinite by default, I'd assume. I amended my answer. – Hector von – 2017-06-17T20:51:24.437