"Get to a doctor" vs "Get to the doctor"

The first phrase has 17 million hits on Google and the latter has 63 million hits. So, regardless of the relative popularity, it seems both phrases are common & acceptable.

My question is: Why is “the” in “Get to the doctor” acceptable?

In trying to explain to some non-native English speakers when to use “a” vs “the”, I usually say that “a” is used when it refers to one of many, and “the” is used when you are referring to the only one that exists (I’m sure the rules are more complex than that)

e.g., you say “I saw the Pope today” vs “I saw a cat today”

So, why is “the doctor” correct? There isn’t only one doctor. And yet, it sounds OK to my ears. It doesn’t sound wrong.

Is there an implied “Get to the doctor that is closest to you” or “Get to the doctor that you usually visit” or some other implied part of the sentence that makes “the doctor” correct?

Or is there a rule about the usage of “the” vs “a” that makes it acceptable in this case?
[Bonus question: “Fight to the death”: why “the death”? “The death” by itself sounds nonsensical, but in that phrase it sounds OK]

I think there are two things here. One, for a lot of fairly recent history there likely was only one doctor in town. So “get to the doctor” means go to the one in town. The second, as you note, is that usually people have a fixed doctor. So when they say “I have to go to the doctor” they mean they have to go to their specific one, not just any doctor.

They combatants aren’t going to stop if a spectator has a heart attack and dies. In this case, “the death” should be read as “the death of one of the combatants”.

I agree. In most towns nowadays, there are many doctors, but people generally have a doctor that they normally see. People under care for a medical condition or who are at serious risk for developing a condition may see a specialist regularly, and I would think that is ideomatically included into the “the doctor” phrase, so it is contextual as well. E.g. “Joe is not here today. He’s at the doctor getting another round of chemotherapy.” (in this case, “the doctor” may be an oncologist at the city hospital, and his general practitioner that he would see for the flu would be someone else. This is ideomatic).

There are other ideomatic uses of “the”. Americans say “the hospital” to mean an appropriate or applicable hospital in the context of being a patient. “Where is Joe?” “He’s in the hospital.”, when there is more than one hospital in the city that he could have gone to. Brits say “in hospital”.

English is like that.

It’s ideomatic. It means until one of the participants is dead.

It should be “Get thee to a doctor”.

This being English :smiley: , you might want to indicate that sometimes that’s the distinction, and to note that “the” is usually specific while “a/an” is usually general. You may find this page helpful.

Since idiom is part of it, it goes beyond rules – and yes, can get quite complex.

They have doctors in nunneries? :slight_smile:

I’d argue that the Brits are the odd ones here. Us Yanks use “the” whenever we are talking about where a person is. “He’s in the bank” “He’s in the yard” “He’s in the car” etc. In hospital sounds like a usage probably related to hospital’s original meaning.

Then why do we say “I’m going to the store”? And in Chicago, it’s even worse, where we’ll say “I’m going to the Jewel” (grocery store) when there are dozens of them.

“Bring in the dog and put out the cat!”
Bonus points if you can name that tune.

They just play doctor there.

Yakety Yak.

“Get to a doctor” implies that you have a medical condition which needs care.

“Get to the doctor” implies that you are involved in a potentially intergalactic crisis which requires the intervention of a Time Lord.

It’s a question of scale, really.

Don’t talk back.

I’m not familiar with “ideomatic” as a word. Do you mean “idiomatic”?

There’s “a/the doctor” as in a specific person doctor, and then there’s “a/the doctor” as in “the office or establishment of a doctor”.

And really, if you’re in need of THAT Doctor, you’re pretty well screwed anyway, unless you’re already traveling with him, and even then it can be a toss-up as to your survival.

I’m not a real doctor, but I play one in a nunnery, or should it be the nunnery? Hmmm.

Moved Cafe Society --> GQ, by way of a nunnery.

Yackety Yack (don’t talk back)

Actually that’s before my time, but my parents had it on 45 from when they were kids, and it was one of my favorites growing up.

ETA: Damn, third or worse! So to make up for it, a joke on another post:

Methinks the patient doth protest too much!


That last one I find really weird. Here in Arkansas, we refer to stores by just using their name. No article is necessary. “I’m going to Walmart.” If it’s a common noun, then we use the demonstrative article.

The difference is actually quite similar to the difference between a British person saying “the hospital” and just “hospital.”