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I was in a Teacher's selection for a school in my country, and one of the coordinators said that she heard a mistake from another teacher that was unacceptable. I tried to figure out why was that, but I thought it was silly and forgot about it. Then I was asking about the weekend in my classroom and one of my Ss said the same sentence. I corrected him according to the coordinator, as she is way more experienced than me, but I couldn't actually explain why to him. The sentence was:

I went to the church.

I can't see the mistake in this sentence if the church had been previously mentioned in the context of the conversation. I understand, as a non-native speaker, that if you are talking to a person that doesn't have any idea of where you were and doesn't have any previous information about the specific place, the article 'the' should not be used. Also, I am assuming church as a count noun. So instead, we would say:

I went to a church.

Is it correct to use the indefinite article since I don't have any idea of which church he is talking about?

I made a research about it and found that places that people use in common (like school, church, hospital, work) but are not necessarily the same, we would omit the article, so we would use the sentence that the coordinator accept:

I went to church.

Like this sounds strange to me, but since I am not a native speaker, I think that it is OK.

I really don't think that it was an unacceptable mistake, since the use of the article will depend on the context. So, if I am talking to my student, asking what he did last weekend and we were not talking about anything before, which one should he use?

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See also: english.stackexchange.com/questions/19604/… –  Bradd Szonye May 7 '13 at 23:54
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I'm a native speaker of Australian English, and I'd accept any of those variants without blinking - the meaning changes, but none of them are ungrammatical. I'd use "I want to the church" to mean "I went to meet with the organisation I call 'The church,'" "I went to a church" to mean "I went to visit a building (or possibly an organisation)," and "I went to church" to mean "I went to my local church, most likely in order to attend a service." –  user867 May 8 '13 at 2:16
    
Related if not duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/q/19604/8019. –  TimLymington Jun 11 at 17:24

3 Answers 3

I am no expert, but I am a native English speaker (American). I would interpret "I went to church" to mean "I attended a church service". "I went to the/a church" would imply I visited a building.

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Likewise for went to school but not went to the store. The usage varies from one example to another, sometimes also between dialects (e.g., went to [the] hospital). –  Bradd Szonye May 7 '13 at 23:53
    
The interesting case is “hospital”. Americans say, “I went to the hospital” – the more common third-person form is “he is in the hospital” – whereas other English speakers will omit the article, and say, “he is in hospital.” –  Scott Nov 6 '13 at 1:18

Understanding here depends less on the meanings of church than on the meanings of go.

There are numerous uses of go. Most commonly it refers to moving or traveling somewhere. In this sense, and when by church we mean a building used for Christian worship, we use the article with church according to the usual rules:

I'm sure I lost my camera in Montmartre; I went to a church there— but I don't recall which one— and left it in a pew.

We stopped for lunch in a small town, and I walked around a bit after we ate. I went to the church, then the square, then got an ice cream soda at the drugstore.

Go can also mean to attend or visit a place or type of place for a particular purpose, however. To say you go to church means not only that you physically situate yourself at the building, but that you are engaged in regular worship services there. In this sense, you do not use an article.

I went to church in the morning so I could watch the football game later.

I went to church growing up, first Blessed Sacrament and then St. Ann's after we moved. But I lapsed when I moved to the city.

The same change of meaning applies for a number of other words which can denote both a location and a particular engagement: court, school, market, town, and so on. To go to a jail is to visit a penitentiary facility; to go to jail is to be incarcerated; don't mix up the two in conversation.

English being English, unfortunately, this is not a strict rule. Most geologic features, for example, require a definitive article when used in either a specific or generic sense: the mountains, the shore, the woods, etc. Certain proper nouns always take the definitive article as well. Thus, a simple statement can be ambiguous.

I went to the Church of St. Luke when I lived in Lexington.

could mean that you once visited the building known as St. Luke's, but it could also mean that you were a regular parishioner who attended services every Sunday.

I went to the beach last summer.

could mean you visited a particular beach once last summer, but it could also mean you went to one or a number of different beaches as a regular activity last summer.

As always, context is key.

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This is by no means an answer from an English language expert, but one from someone with an idea. We have definite and indefinite articles. In this case, we are dropping both of them. We don't use "the" nor do we use "a". We are implying an even closer relationship than definite. We are implying a personal relationship: ours. Our church. Our school. My work. So we drop the article entirely. We don't need it. We know what we're talking about.

If you can think of the noun as something that is "yours," something that you are part of, something you belong to in some way, as a member, as a participant, as a student, a patient, a guest, whatever, then you most likely can drop the article.

Just another slippery feature of English!

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If that’s the rule, why do we say, “he is in jail” rather than “he is in the jail”? –  Scott Nov 6 '13 at 1:17
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I don't think this is right. I personally go to church (sometimes) when I am away from home, even if I have to ask at hotel reception which is the closest church or where there is a church I can attend. –  TimLymington Dec 13 '13 at 23:03

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