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Considering phrases of the form "I left [the] X", what causes some words to need a "the" before them, while it sounds awkward with others?

Needs "the":

  • I left the office
  • I left the bank
  • I left the house
  • I left the courthouse

Awkward with "the":

  • I left work
  • I left social media
  • I left New York

Either way works:

  • I left [the] school
  • I left [the] church
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    You know the 'the' words are physical addresses, and the 'non-the' words are abstract, right? School is a study arena, whereas the school has windows. Same with church. Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 19:38
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    "I left school" means you quit going entirely, "I left the school" means you physically exited the building. "I left church" isn't grammatical to me (but I don't go to any churches). Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 21:16
  • "school" and "the school" differ in meaning between US and UK. Also "hospital" and "the hospital" differ US/UK.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 21:22
  • "church" and "the church" also differ -> "church" = a service, such as mass; "the church" = a physical location that is a church.
    – psosuna
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 21:51
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    I think it’s best to leave out proper nouns from this. Some proper nouns tend to be used with definite articles; others don’t. That’s a feature of each individual proper noun, and it’s not predictable at all. There is a tendency that names that refer to an identifiable geographic feature or location are more likely to have articles than those that don’t, but that’s all (see also this question). Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 12:31

2 Answers 2

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You use "the" on locations that are tangible:

I left the house.
I left the store.
I left the bank.

You don't use "the" on locations named by a proper noun:

I left New York.
I left Qualcomm Stadium.
I left Huntington Hospital.
I left David's house.

You don't use "the" on ideas that share a name with a generic location:

I left school. (means you quit going to school, can also mean having left a school for the day.)
I left work. (can mean you quit working, but more often means you have stopped working for the day)
I left church. (means you are leaving a service given at church)

...unless you specifically left that location:

I left the school.
I left the church.

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  • I'll repeat my comment above here. when I say I'm leaving work I'm not talking in the abstract. Also, school can refer to the physical location: she can't play this afternoon: she's still at school. Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 1:08
  • @Clare: "I'm leaving work" is abstract. You're thinking of someone who works in the same location every day. But what if we're talking about a cab driver, or a business consultant? When they "leave work", their location is not specified, only the fact that they stop working.
    – Flater
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 11:56
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    @Flater No, when you say you leave work, what you’re specifying is that you leave the place where you work, not that you stop working. You can stop working and still stay at your place of work, and you can leave work but still keep working on your commute home. “Left work” implies a more or less fixed place of work, too—for a cab driver, it just doesn’t make sense to use the phrase at all, unless you’re referring to the main taxi station/office/whatchamacallit (if those even exist anymore) as your ‘place of work’. Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 12:26
  • @Clare I somehow reread your comment to find something interesting that I thought I should point out. Your example She can't play this afternoon, she's still at school. (ignoring punctuation issues) has one assumption. This assumption is that the word "school" refers to a location, and not (more correctly) the idea of school. It's also perfectly valid to say "She's still at the school" but we don't generally say that because often that implies a specific real-world location rather than the idea of it. However, I do need to make an edit to this answer as a result. Thank you!
    – psosuna
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 18:23
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I left the office/bank/courthouse....etc.

That's one specific place you're talking about. Hence "the".

I left work/New York....etc.

When you say work, that's not referring to a defined place. Work is what you do in the office, it's not an actual physical place you can leave. Also, New York is far too general to be a specific place. The office is referring to a specific building, New York is referring to a sea of buildings.

School and Church can be used both ways depending on what you're trying to say.

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    The "New York" explanation can seem a bit arbitrary. For example, "I left the Arctic". The Arctic is a huge area. Also, "I left the South", and "I left New England" both refer to large areas, but have inconsistent usage of "the".
    – Trey Keown
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 0:08
  • I'm not sure about the more subjective ones, such as New York. To be honest, I doubt there's any specific rule regarding them - it's probably just another of English's many irregularities. Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 9:15
  • @TreyKeown: The South is not named "South", it is named "the South" (assuming you're referring to the southern US, and not just "the South [of this region we've been talking about]"). In both cases, you are only using the name of the region, one of the names just happens to have "the" in it.
    – Flater
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 11:50

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