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Why do British speakers omit the article in constructions like "go to hospital" or "go on holiday"? Pretty much all American speakers would rephrase those as "go to the hospital" and "go on a holiday", I think. Is there any good reason, or forgotten sense behind those words that might explain why the articles are ommitted? Are there other common constructions other than those two that the British use that drop the article?

EDIT: I just realized per Kosmonaut's comment that Americans do much the same thing with a few nouns, so this isn't all that special. Do grammaticists designate nouns that can have their article dropped with anything, i.e. do they have anything in common?

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We Americans say "go to school", "go to work", "go to college", and "go on vacation". Brits just do one or two more. –  Kosmonaut Apr 5 '11 at 18:44
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Correction: Americans don't say go on a holiday: we say go on vacation. –  msh210 Apr 5 '11 at 18:46
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@UpTheCreek: I'm English and it's perfectly normal. Are you from Corby or something?! –  Lightness Races in Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 11:04
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COCA has significantly fewer instances of "to hospital" as BNC (I haven't checked how many of them are actually the construction at issue), but it does have a good number. @UpTheCreek, both the en-gb and en-us examples seem to favour "taken" or "rushed to hospital" over "go". –  Peter Taylor Apr 6 '11 at 12:54
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@billynomates: I don't think that that's related. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Apr 7 '11 at 12:38

8 Answers 8

up vote 53 down vote accepted

I can't speak for AmE, but in British English there is a distinction between "to school" and "to the school". If you say:

He went to school/church/hospital.

you imply that they went there for 'the purpose for which that place is designed'. On the other hand, if you say:

Jimmy's parents went to the school to meet the headmaster.

He wasn't religious, but he went to the church to help with the flower arranging.

With a bottle of arsenic in his pocket, he went to the hospital to visit his sick wealthy mother-in-law.

it implies that they went there as a visitor and not for the actual purpose of the building in question.

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As an AmE speaker, I do the same thing for school/church, just not for 'hospital'. –  jbelacqua Apr 5 '11 at 20:45
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Another one: soldiers go to war, while reporters go to the war zone. –  Peter Shor Apr 5 '11 at 20:51
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Thanks Neil! I love it when someone points something like that. It's amazing how many of us manage to implement the distinction exactly as you so succinctly put it, without being conciously aware even of the existence of a rule, let alone exactly how to formulate it. –  FumbleFingers Apr 5 '11 at 22:11
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@Billare: yes, although the preposition would usually be "into" with "go". So either "he's going into hospital" or "he's in hospital" implies that the person is ill. –  Neil Coffey Apr 6 '11 at 1:22
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@DanielT.: "Bed" is actually a perfect example of this phenomenon: we say "go to bed" (for sleeping) instead of "go to the bed" (to, say, pick up something that lying on it). This is even though "bed" in every other context is used with the article: we don't say "here is bed" or "it's on bed", for instance. –  ShreevatsaR Nov 26 '11 at 11:33

When we omit the article before the noun, we are thinking of a state or condition, not of a specific place: in jail, in love, in hospital, at university, under fire,

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How we refer to roads is a an example where the reverse is true (in some parts of the US). Brits might say Take the M1 or Take the A1, while most Americans will say take 95 or take 81. In Southern California, however, people say, take the 101 or the 1.

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as an aside, I think it's interesting to note when someone who lives in Hollywood is writing a show about D.C. for example, and mentions the 95. –  Sam Apr 5 '11 at 18:57
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I may be wrong, but I don't think it's the entire Western US where this happens, just Southern California. I lived in the San Francisco area growing up, and I was surprised by this when I first visited LA (around 1980). Also, in Washington D.C. you would say "take the Beltway" (part of which is 95). –  Peter Shor Apr 5 '11 at 20:54
    
Both can be mixed in the same location too. In Ontario we take the 401 to Toronto (a major freeway) but we take 15 to Smith's Falls (a two-lane highway). The latter is often said take highway 15. –  Wayne Johnston Apr 6 '11 at 2:27
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Check out the EL&U question on this topic, US Route 101 - “The 101”. And also here. –  Callithumpian Apr 6 '11 at 3:14
    
I'm from Chicago, and we always omit the "the" before road names. I've always thought it's because they're proper names - for the same reason you wouldn't say, "take the Emmy to school", you wouldn't say, "take the Lincoln Highway to the I57." –  EmmyS Apr 7 '11 at 13:39

There is a distinction.

  • "I went to the hospital" describes the act of physically visiting the physical hospital building. "I went to hospital" describes the wider act of having been infirmed and gone to the hospital building, possibly with a stay, and having been seen by a nurse/doctor.

  • Similarly, "he just got out of the hospital" implies that "he" has stepped out of the building, possibly having popped into visit the hospital shop for a lottery ticket; "he just got out of hospital" says that "he" has been discharged and is probably feeling much better.

  • "I went to the school" describes the act of physically visiting the physical building, whereas "I went to school" talks about the wider act of having spent the day in an educational institution learning from your teachers.

You could mix and match them, but it's quite common to leave out the article in what is the more common case.

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Wiktionary has an archived discussion on the issue, though it's from a lexicography viewpoint (does the phrase belong in a dictionary?).

Also, are there other common constructions other than those two that the British use that drop the article?

In hospital and at uni.

Also, (I'm pretty sure both Brits and) Americans use in bed, in school, in church, and in class.

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But you would say; in the bedroom, in the classroom. Don't know if there is a general underlying rule –  mgb Apr 5 '11 at 18:52
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I don't know if it's a rule or not, but in the bedroom, or in the classroom, refer specifically to a place. In bed, or in class, is a state of being. You could be in class on the quad lawn, for example. –  EmmyS Apr 7 '11 at 13:41

Incidentally, there is a distinction between going into / in hospital (implies admission, and some length of stay that's pre-planned) and going to hospital (implies only a brief stay, usually to accident and emergency).

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One facet of this that is confusing in American English is that you can go “to college”, but you are never “at university”, you are “at a university” and also “at college”. I have no idea why this is the case or is acceptable.

I’ve seen this with the previously mentioned “at uni”, “at hospital” and “in future”.

Since “the future” is a place (like a hospital or a university”and a time, I find this rather odd.

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At least in BE 'at university' is perfectly normal 'at a U..' is odd –  mgb Apr 15 '12 at 3:25
    
You say "at least", but you are at "a" specific University, just like you drive a car to the office. –  Alex Zavatone Apr 16 '12 at 7:08
    
Sorry, I didn't have time to complete my edit: You say "at least", but you are at "a" specific University, just like you drive "a" car to the office. I'm interested in why there is a perceived difference between the two. The "university" is not a proper name (which is how we are taught in the US), so by our logic and instruction, there should be an article in front of it. –  Alex Zavatone Apr 16 '12 at 14:23
    
The 'at least' meant my claim was only about BE not AE. In BE you would say "I am at University" to say you are studying, or "I am at XYZ" to specify which university. I can't think of a case where you would naturally say "I am at A university". You generally leave out the 'a' for places which are also a 'state' so in hospital/in prison/at university - describe being in a certain state 'ill/locked-up/studying" rather than the building –  mgb Apr 16 '12 at 15:18

Yes, the point in your edit, is true.

For your main question, the answer is simple. It is not necessary to say "go to the hospital" or "go on the holiday", when talking in a general sense. Use of the word 'the', means that the sentence is in a particular sense. A reference to one, particular example. "go to the hospital" will mean going to one, particular hospital.

If what you mean is going to a hospital generally, for example talking about an injury that happened to you many years ago and an ambulance was called; then saying "the hospital", will have a different meaning.

I noticed that it is Americans who will speak like that. This sounds odd and unnecessary to me, as a British person. I have not heard any British people speak like that.

This can cause misunderstanding. I remember an example of this, when I was talking to an American friend. They mentioned an incident in which their neighbour had an accident and an ambulance was called. They said the neighbour was taken "to the hospital" and came home the next day. I asked which hospital and they stopped talking for a moment. They looked confused and asked why I would ask that, considering that I don't live near them and therefore would not be familiar with it. After explaining that this not how British people speak, they realised.

If what you mean is one, particular example, like going to a particular hospital or a particular school that you have referred to by name; then, saying "going to the hospital" or "going to the school', will make sense.

Basically, the word 'the', is not necessary in sentences that are in the general sense. The, is used when referring to something in a particular sense.

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A perfect example of what you discussed above, I guess, could be a part of what you've written as your profile i.e. "... and sharing the benefit of my experience as a speaker of THE English of England, UK. –  M.N May 18 at 12:57

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