When referring to a non-specific instance of a place (hospital, theatre), there seems to be a strange inconsistency as to when you use the. Is there any sort of pattern, or is there any reference site that lists these out somewhat comprehensively?

American English:

  • go to the hospital
  • go to school
  • go to church
  • go to the mall
  • go to the theater
  • go to the police station
  • go to the train station
  • go to the airport
  • go to the supermarket
  • go to the post office
  • go to the market (is go to market okay in American English?)
  • go to town
  • go to college
  • go to jail
  • go to the bank

British English:

  • go to hospital
  • go to school
  • go to church
  • go to the theatre
  • go to the cinema
  • ???

This question is inspired by the conversation here: Is there a reason the British omit the article when they "go to hospital"?

  • I think the only differences between American and British here are hospital, college, temple, and university. – Peter Shor May 24 '14 at 17:35

This has been much debated in postings passim, on this site.

We, in Britain, only say he is 'in hospital' if 'he' is a patient. If we are talking about a doctor, nurse or other employee we say 'he/she works at the hospital'.

Similarly with schools; pupils go 'to school', but teachers work at 'the school'.

With 'church' it is slightly different. If they were attending or officiating at a service both congregation and minister would say they were 'at church'. But if someone was polishing the pews on a weekday they would be working at 'the church'.

In other words the dropping of the article indicates a change of meaning. If I am 'at university', it means I am a student, and university is my way of life. But if I am a painter doing work there I would be working 'at the university'.

  • Can you use the same principle for go to theatre or go to police station? – Jun-Dai Bates-Kobashigawa May 24 '14 at 16:46
  • @Jun-Dai No, sadly not. It’s not very consistent. You don’t go to theatre at all, nor do you go to police station or go to bank or go to post office. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 24 '14 at 16:51
  • @Jun-DaiBates-Kobashigawa You might go to theatre in a hospital, but not to see a theatrical performance. – Frank May 24 '14 at 17:00
  • @JanusBahsJacquet But people do go to 'prison'. Whilst the staff work 'at the prison', or 'in a prison'. – WS2 May 24 '14 at 17:47
  • Again, people do not 'go to penitentiary', 'go to infirmary', or 'go to academy'. – Edwin Ashworth May 24 '14 at 18:09

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