Why do some nouns get a 'the'?
October 25, 2005 12:06 AM   Subscribe

Why do some speakers omit the word 'the' from before many nouns?

I've heard this several times from British or Australians: "He had to go to hospital" or "She went to market". But then from the same speaker, I've heard "She went to the mountain". Is there a grammatical rule for this? When did the extra 'the' show up in American English?
posted by tumble to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure they're native English speakers? Many languages don't have articles (a, an, the, etc).

I had a Turkish professor once you learned English at an early age. He thought that the was the most important word in English since he kept seeing it everywhere. Now when he writes he mostly leaves it out.
posted by sbutler at 12:11 AM on October 25, 2005

Isn't it just a question of definitiveness? "He had to go to hospital" is different from "He had to go to the hospital" in that the latter is more definite about which hospital he needed to go to.
posted by benzo8 at 12:19 AM on October 25, 2005

Best answer: From Wikpedia:

A few "institutional" nouns take no definite article when a certain role is implied: for example, at sea [as a sailor], in prison [as a convict]. Among this group, Commonwealth English has in hospital [as a patient] and at university [as a student], where American English requires in the hospital and at the university. (A nurse, visitor, etc. would be in the hospital in both systems.) On the other hand, American English distinguishes in back of [behind] from in the back of; the former is unknown in Britain and liable to misinterpretation as the latter. Both however distinguish in front of from in the front of.

So it seems it's the role that's important - someone going "to hospital" is a patient, and "to the hospital" a visitor or staff.

"To market" must be the opposite - as a seller or otherwise in a business capacity, and "To the market", an ordinary buyer.

Thanks, tumble, I'd never really thought about this before!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 12:28 AM on October 25, 2005

Are you sure they're native English speakers?

It's definitely true of native English speakers from the UK. I'm one, and I would say "go to hospital", although I wouldn't say "go to market".

There's another factor as well of course, that Northern speakers of English sort of elide the "the" into a very brief t-sound or glottal stop.

So you might hear "'E 'ad to go to t'hospital" and think "the" was missing completely when it's still there vestigially.

There's no rule, as far as I know. It's just one of those things.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:32 AM on October 25, 2005

What Jon Mitchell quoted makes a lot of sense. Cool.
posted by sbutler at 12:32 AM on October 25, 2005

I think when the noun is either 1) familiar to both the speaker and the receiver or 2) a singular instance, that "the" can sometimes be extracted. In the instance of "she went to market" the speakers could both assume that the market in question obviously means the one on the corner that they've both been going to their whole lives. Or perhaps the market is the only one in town so there is no need to add an article to the noun.

But this still doesn't explain why I say "it's time to watch television" and my mother says "it's time to watch the television" so we obviously need to get a linguist in this thread.
posted by quadog at 12:34 AM on October 25, 2005

It's a bit like saying "when I went to college, I studied Literature", in American English.
posted by sic at 1:12 AM on October 25, 2005

quadog - I'm British and make the distinction between 'going to market' and 'going to the market' and it's not quite as you think. 'Going to market' would be, for example, a farmer who is taking his cattle to be sold at market, and as an ancillary statement it would be understood that there is only one market in the vicinity. I, not being a farmer, would say 'going to the market' if I were going to buy produce, even though there might equally only be one market in the vicinity.

'Going to hospital' would be said of a sick person going for treatment - 'going to the hospital' would be said of, for example, the visitors on their way to see said patient.

So yes, what Jon Mitchell says, from the horse's mouth.
posted by altolinguistic at 1:18 AM on October 25, 2005

To market, to market
to buy a fat pig.

You could watch the television, but its much more fun to watch the content (ie, television). That's how I read that difference.
posted by Goofyy at 3:38 AM on October 25, 2005

I've also heard "he went to University", mostly from British speakers, but recently in the US as well. I grew up in the US northeast and never heard this until I was about 20.
posted by kdern at 5:57 AM on October 25, 2005

'Going to market' would be, for example, a farmer who is taking his cattle to be sold at market, and as an ancillary statement it would be understood that there is only one market in the vicinity.

I wouldn't understand that there was only one market. Can you give an example of usage that implies that?
posted by cillit bang at 6:01 AM on October 25, 2005

Best answer: My students were asking me this like two days ago. For much more info than you might want, try this search. I found this thesis (pdf, change the filename for later chapters)particularly interesting, if probably heavy going for those not interested in linguistics. Note that the expectations of meaning will be different between British and American English speakers, if you believe the thesis I linked to.

Oh, and mono blanco? I'd say you're the idiot here -- it was an excellent question.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:20 AM on October 25, 2005

In America we say "he's at school" and "he's at the hospital"? Why are we inconsistent? Is it just that we're stupid?

In other English speaking countries, they are consistent. They don't use a definite article in front of institutions. They say "he's at school" and "he's at hospital".

Why would you possibly want "the" in front of those nouns? What does it add?
posted by alms at 6:25 AM on October 25, 2005

Just to complicate matters:

British: He went on holiday.

American: He went on vacation when his job had a holiday.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:48 AM on October 25, 2005

'Why would possibly want "the" front nouns? What does add?'
posted by signal at 7:05 AM on October 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

Seeings like "go to market" and "go to hospital" are almost using the noun as a verb, as in: He goes to market (something).
posted by blue_beetle at 7:15 AM on October 25, 2005

It's a dialect thing, just like "standing on line" in NYC. No deeper semantic significance.
posted by languagehat at 7:33 AM on October 25, 2005

blue_beetle and others come close to my understanding of the usage.
To go to hospital, to market, or to school denotes something you're doing rather than somewhere you're going.
I would say "go to the hospital" if I was talking about a specific journey to a hospital, but "go to hospital" if I meant I was talking about becoming a patient. I might "go to the office" to pick up something I forgot, but if I'm going there to do a day's labour I'd say "I'm going to work". Omitting the definite article means that you are describing an activity rather than a journey.
In other situations, we have different words for the activity so we don't need to do this: compare "go to the supermarket" with "go shopping".
I think it's a lot like the difference between perfect and imperfect tenses, but I don't know the fancy words for it because I didn't go to grammar school.
posted by nowonmai at 8:50 AM on October 25, 2005

London cab drivers are required to master The Knowledge.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:58 AM on October 25, 2005

Best answer: The use of "the" in terms like "going to hospital/the hospital" is usually ascribed to the influence of Irish English on the American language in the 19th century. Before 1870, most of the Irish immigrants to the US had grown up speaking Gaelic, and had adopted English as a second language either in Ireland or after landing in America, a pattern that gradually changed as the Gaelic language gave up ground to English once more Irish acquired a British-mandated school education.

Irish Gaelic did not use any definate article equivalent to "the" to denote generic/specific noun aspects as in English. When speakers of Irish Gaelic switched to speaking English, they tended to confuse this particular grammatical nuance of English.

In Merrye Olde Englande this was considered a primitive misuse of the language. In the New World, however, the Irish - among the many emmigrant groups - were often construed as "native English speakers" by default, even though many of them were actually secondary speakers of English prior to 1880. Thus the use of "the Hospital" - based in an irregular form - became accepted in American English.
posted by zaelic at 9:49 AM on October 25, 2005

I agree with languagehat, it seems to be regional. For example, in some parts of the U.S. people say, "I went to prom," instead of, "I went to the prom."
posted by hyperizer at 9:56 AM on October 25, 2005

There are regional differences, too: In Scotland people often say 'She's in the hospital' where an English English-speaker would say 'She's in hospital.' (Still sounds odd to me after ten years here.)
posted by jack_mo at 10:02 AM on October 25, 2005

London cab drivers are required to master The Knowledge.

But The Knowledge is the specific name of the course cabbies have to take - it's not an obscure use of the noun knowledge.

alms: they say "he's at hospital".
We don't, I'm afraid (more complicated than that...). My take on it is that we say
he's in hospital (patient)
he's at the hospital (visitor etc)
he's in the hospital (Scottish for being a patient or maybe English for being a visitor, but a bit strange.)

But not "he's at hospital".

Similarly many Scots will say "I'm going to my bed" when they are tired, compared with the English "I'm going to bed".

(No wonder people studying English as a second language have such problems with these when they differ so much geographically.)

For me, "going to market" is antiquated - it's what people in fairytales do: I guess it's one we're gradually losing.
posted by penguin pie at 10:22 AM on October 25, 2005

on preview: guess me an' jack_mo had the same thought at the same time.
posted by penguin pie at 10:25 AM on October 25, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for such a great discussion on this. I'm really glad to see that this rule is as vague and interesting as I thought it might be. I'm reading through the pdf's that stavrosthewonderchicken found on bare singular nominals. It is interesting stuff. I was asking a friend about this this morning, and she pointed out that the definition of market in a global economic sense is newer than the fairytales. It means that while 'this little piggy went to market' might have been acceptable then, today, it's more likely that a 'new product will go to market'
posted by tumble at 10:37 AM on October 25, 2005

It might just be a regional dialict thing. A friend of mine often says 'The car needs washed." I would say "The car needs TO BE washed."

It grates on my nerves, but whatcha gonna do?
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 10:38 AM on October 25, 2005

When they wanted to make Batman cool again around 1990 he became the Batman. Due to the DC comics law of conservation of definite articles, 'the Joker' became 'Joker'.
posted by Chuckles at 1:53 PM on October 25, 2005

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