Is one of these more correct?

I will apply to university next year.

I will apply to a university next year.


I go to university.

I go to a university.


It's nice to find a usage where the Brits are ahead of the curve for once (I went to university, obviously – as did most UK undergraduates by the mid 60s). enter image description here

Americans have been slower to adopt the new usage, but they're getting there... enter image description here

As implied by @M. Tibbits's answer and comments thereto, I think including "a" implies slightly more "exclusivity/cachet/prestige", notwithstanding that many Americans will say "university" means the same as "college" (US speakers go to college, just as in the UK we go to university). I suggest that Brits are following this principle when they speak of going to a redbrick [university].

  • No, they aren't. Nobody says that in the USA. If you try saying "to University" here, you will get "corrected". What your graphs are probably showing is a rise in the relative number of UK/Austrialian/Indian(?) graduates.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 29 '11 at 18:26
  • @T.E.D.: The American educational system would indeed be in a perilous state if the (I'd have thought, tiny, out of 1.5M) proportion of UK/Austrialian/Indian graduates could effect such a linguistic change. I take it you don't deny "go to college" and "go to school" are valid in the US. I think it is an absolute certainty US usage will switch to that form as degree-level education becomes more widespread, but you are of course welcome to your opinion on that, as well as the validity of NGram figures and trends. Jul 29 '11 at 20:53
  • 1
    Your prediction may well be right (my crystal ball is on the fritz). However, I can say for a fact that right now "go to University" is not used in American English, and would be considered incorrect. So as it stands today, this is a regionalism.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 29 '11 at 21:57
  • On a less relevant note, if BritEnglish speakers get to throw in the folks from India on this, it doesn't take much to swamp us poor AVE speakers. A 2004 census study I found claimed India had about 50 million graduates, a number which had doubled since the previous decade. The USA has around 116 million graduates (including 2 year associate degrees, which may or may not count). With over a billion people, one day we will all be speaking the Indian dialect of English. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 29 '11 at 22:10
  • @T.E.D.: It's your language, not mine, so you're welcome to excoriate any of your countrymen you think are precipitately moving to the new usage. I haven't offered any opinions as to "correct/incorrect" usage either side of the pond. I'm just pointing out what people actually say, with particular reference to the fact that the most common usage seems to have switched for all speakers, so it's not "just" a standard US/UK difference dating from Webster, like colour/color. Jul 29 '11 at 22:12

I believe it is more American (as per FF's answer below) to use 'a' before the common noun 'university'. But if it were replaced with a proper noun, the use of 'a' is incorrect.


I go to Cambridge.
I go to a university.

And similarly:

I will apply to Cambridge. 
I will apply to a university.  (only one?)
  • I don't really think "correct" is the right word here. Per Chad's comment, Americans have traditionally gone to college anyway. Today it would probably sound 'provincial' to speak of having gone to a college if the particular college isn't relevant. Dropping the a with universities isn't 'wrong', it's just an emerging usage. Jul 26 '11 at 3:09
  • Sounds quite reasonable. Editing to that effect.
    – M. Tibbits
    Jul 26 '11 at 3:10
  • Agreed that "correct" isn't the right word. The answer is pretty simple really: Its an American vs. British English issue.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 29 '11 at 19:45
  • Incidentally, I and my four siblings all "went to university" (being British, obviously). Probably all of them have said to me somewhen since "Ah, but I went to a university!", because my particular educational establishment changed from being a polytechnic to a university while I was a student. Jul 29 '11 at 21:02

The ones with "a" are definitely acceptable in American English. The ones without sound British to me... though we'd also say "go to school" and "go to college", "go to university" isn't as common an idiom.


In Australia, I would find "I go to a university" a bit awkward. "I go to university" would be overwhelmingly more common, as would "I'm at university". "I go to a university" sounds like the speaker is making a point that they only attend one one, or that a university is an unusual thing. It almost sounds like they're being enigmatic about which one they are attending, perhaps because it isn't very prestigious.

  • I think you've got a key point there - using "a" implies that a university is an unusual thing. I suspect that even though in principle college/university are equivalent in the US, the latter term has [had?] more 'cachet'. How many US institutions have changed their identity from university to college in recent decades (not counting those being absorbed into a larger institution)? I bet more have changed from college to university - because it sounds better, perhaps. Jul 26 '11 at 3:20
  • Interestingly, Australia has never used the word 'college' as an equal of university. College is a vague term that might mean 'matriculation college' (ie years 11 and 12 pre-university) or 'technical college' (where you learn a trade rather than a profession).
    – Richard A
    Jul 26 '11 at 3:51
  • Yes, it's much the same in the UK. In fact, the university I went to was originally called a polytechnic. I do think today's UK degrees are worth less than they were decades ago - but that's probably just the grumpy ole man in me coming out a bit ahead of his time! :) Jul 26 '11 at 3:58
  • In Tasmania, our government has just renamed our 'matriculation colleges' as 'academies' and our technical colleges as 'polytechnics'. (I think, it's so hard to keep up.)
    – Richard A
    Jul 26 '11 at 4:02
  • @fumbleFingers: in the US, people frequently interchange the words "college" and "university" in casual conversation, largely because people don't always feel the need to be pedantic (and also because one does attend a college at university), but institutions do not "interchange them for identity" because a university is a grouping of colleges. If they changed the name it is probably because they have merged with or added a college.
    – horatio
    Jul 26 '11 at 19:27

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