a stint in <the> pen

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The waitress notices a client eating greedily.
WAITRESS: Just get out, did ya?
WAITRESS: Oh, nothing, just that my brother did a stint in the pen and he used to eat like that.
CUSTOMER: I come from a big family.
The Butterfly Effect, movie

Does the definite article article with "pen" mean she implies some particular prison, or is it a generic use?
  • london calling

    Senior Member
    UK English
    It's idiomatic in the OP, yes. And as we said, we say 'in prison' but 'in a/the penitentiary'. She doesn't mean one particular penitentiary: how could she? She doesn't know which penitentiary he was in.


    Senior Member
    English, USA
    I.e., you disagree with LC, that "a" could be used with the same meaning in the OP?...
    Uhhh ... probably I do disagree. I think if you said "I've been in a hospital" it would be OK but not idiomatic in the same way. It would seem to be leading on to more of an explanation or story or something. "I've been in the hospital" might excite curiosity but it is a statement sufficient unto itself.

    Also, the former could be said, theoretically, for any reason (work, visiting, etc.) while the latter is only for confinement due to illness, surgery, etc. It occurs to me, though, that once you break out of the set expression you might vary the noun article: "Laid up in bed in a hospital in Denver."
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