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We all know that Americans say:

Sara is going to the hospital

While in the UK, they would say (and Americans would never say):

Sara is going to hospital

I'm wondering what the history of this difference is given that in AE, the usage of the "the" modifier seems extraordinarily arbitrary: Americans would say:

Sara is going to school

to mean that Sara is going to be enrolled in school. While they would say:

Sara is going to the school

to mean that Sara is going a particular school building (not enrolled).

To me this intuitively suggests some sort of lack of "personal" connection with the concept of a hospital which is not there when it comes to concepts like "school" or "church".

Now for the leap: does this perhaps have anything to do that in the US, healthcare has been a private entity (until recent occurrences), and not generally regarded as a personal right (but rather, a privilege)? I know this is a stretch, but this could be an explanation for the "impersonal" way in which AE uses the word — unless my history is all wrong here? No politics here, just curious about the root of this difference.

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    British English is just illogical in different ways. We never say "I'm going to dentist // clinic // infirmary // doctor/'s // seminary...." There's a discussion on some of these idiosyncrasies at Wordwizard. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 8 '14 at 8:24
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    This topic is extensively discussed in a previous post. english.stackexchange.com/questions/19604/… – WS2 Mar 8 '14 at 8:53
  • I don't see how this inclusion / exclusion of the by us AmE users is illogical. We include the the for particular designation building on its classic demonstrative origin. We exclude it for generic activities. Looking at your examples above, what is the generic activity of "going to hospital"? Does one commute to random hospitals for some reason. – virmaior Mar 8 '14 at 10:01
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    @virmaior Surely the "generic activity" of going to hospital is exactly the same sort of thing as going to school. One goes to a place -- even a particular place -- for a particular activity. The "generic activity" is "healthcare", just as for school it's "education". – Andrew Leach Mar 8 '14 at 14:06
  • @AndrewLeach I don't see how. Going to school at least in AmE refers to being in the state of being enrolled in school along the lines appropriate for one's age and (presumably) regularly attending that place. Substituting the word hospital for school here doesn't make sense. Or at least to not me. Maybe if you need regular kidney dialysis, you can say going to hospital in that sort of way but otherwise I don't see the parallel. – virmaior Mar 8 '14 at 14:35