During a recent program, Ed from Elk Rapids, Michigan, asked, “Why do the British drop definite articles? Two recent examples I’ve encountered are to hospital and at university.”
I think I know what you mean, but don’t forget that something like this happens in American English, too:
• The sailors assembled on deck.
• The Marines were embedded in country.
• Doris is at school; it’s not a holiday.
• Will Tommy be away at camp this summer?
• I saw Mrs. Blackwell in church last Sunday.
Here’s what I can make out, though there are enough inconsistencies and gaps to make this murky in my mind, at the very least. It seems that nouns connected to an institution can be viewed at least two ways. (1) They may simply be places a person temporarily visits, or (2) they may be places in which the person serves a more permanent function. If there is a strong connection, a role to be played, a permant function, the definite article will probably be left out.
• If George is in the prison, he is there as a tourist, a visitor, a repairman, or some other temporary role. If George is in prison, he is an inmate; he plays a connected role in that setting.
• If British Sylvia went to hospital, she is a patient. If British Sylvia went to the hospital, she is a candy-striper, or a visitor, or some other non-essential role. If American Sandi is in the hospital, however, she is probably a patient. Go figure.
• If Melvin is away at college, he is a student. If Melvin is at the college, he’s simply passing through the campus, perhaps admiring the architecture.
• If British Nigel is at university, he is a student. If British Nigel is at the university, he’s a visitor. However, if Nigel’s American cousin is in college, she’s a student, as opposed to being caught in the college stealing from vending machines.
• If Aunt Matilda is at home, she may need help removing the recent snow from her driveway. If she is at the home, the caretakers will handle everything.
And here’s another situation in which definite-article-present and definite-article-absent change the meaning. To watch television is to be a viewer; to watch the television might mean to guard it so that no one steals it.
“Listen to Jeff Haas on CD” means that he is the recorded performer, as opposed to “Jeff Haas accidentally stepped on the CD.”
SIDEBAR: Articles explained by the Purdue University OWL
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