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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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    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 '14 at 17:24
  • I wrote a fairly detailed answer to a similar question a few years ago: english.stackexchange.com/questions/67036/… – MT_Head Dec 10 '16 at 7:40
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    This may not be relevant to your example, but there is another potential meaning for going to the church. If you have some question about doctrine, for example, and are speaking in reference to a specific religion or denomination, "I went to the church" could mean that you consulted with someone of authority representing that religion for a "definitive" answer. – fixer1234 Mar 7 '17 at 20:39
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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.

  • 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
  • Similarly we say "I went to work" but "I went to the theatre" or "... the cinema" even when the paricular theatre or cinema has not been specified. – BoldBen Sep 26 '16 at 18:37
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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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When the word church is used with an article, as in the church or a church, it refers to a building or a religious organization. The word church without an article refers to a worship event or activity.

Where I live in the United States, “I went to the church” and “I went to church” have distinct meanings. The first means I went to a building that is a church; the second means I participated in religious activities (probably at a church). You always include the article when talking about a building, and always omit the article when talking about church as an event or activity.

Here’s another way to think of it: There is no verb form of church. If there were, We might say “I churched” to mean the same thing as “I went to church”, but we would still say “I went to the church”. [There actually is a verb form of "church", but its meaning doesn't quite fit what I was going for here.]

There are other place names that follow a similar pattern in American English. For example, “I went to school” means that I was a student, while “I went to the school” means I went to a place of learning.

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    There are verb forms of both church and school. – Alan Carmack Dec 10 '16 at 15:51
  • School, yes. I see a verb form of church listed in the dictionary, but in spite of being a native English speaker I have never heard it used as a verb and would not recognize it as being something other than an error if someone used it that way. Regardless, the comparison was meant as a way to help people wrap their heads around the meaning of church without an article. – Darryl Dec 12 '16 at 17:50
  • @Darryl - While it's less common than "schooled", I've definitely heard/read "churched" on numerous occasions. And, in fact, "unchurched" is quite common. – Hot Licks Mar 7 '17 at 23:12
  • @HotLicks - Must be a regional thing. I've never heard it used as a verb. I have, however, heard "unchurched" used as an adjective. – Darryl Mar 11 '17 at 0:16
  • @Darryl - 1911: "One purpose of this report is to reveal the over- churched communities in Wisconsin." 1905 quoting1639: “Doth the woman who is to be churched use the antient accustomed habit in such cases" 1982: "and she was very careful not to meet anyone for 3 weeks until she had been 'churched'." 1980: "After a fortunate confinement and after the child had been baptised, every Christian mother performed the devotion of being churched." 1924: "When Miss Susannah was born—that's Miss Honoria's mother—she went to be churched." – Hot Licks Mar 11 '17 at 0:37
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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
  • -1 I was a stranger in town with no sense of belonging to anything or anyone. I am an atheist but I went to church out of boredom. – AmE speaker Aug 3 '17 at 12:40
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When a place is visited regularly as a part pf a routine. We will not use the when referring to the place.

Example: Children go to school everyday.

However, two exceptions to this rule are 'temple' and 'Mosque'.Hence we should use the in front of these words even if referring to a routine.

Thanks

  • I have definitely heard Jews in the US talk about "going to temple". And when one uses "go to school" the word "school" is being used as a mass noun, rather than referring to a specific school. – Hot Licks Mar 7 '17 at 13:08

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