This interesting conversation took place on Facebook:
I wonder how it happened that in American English we say “…have to go to THE hospital”, but in British English they say, “…have to go to hospital”. – Trevor Lee Deck
When I say, “go to school”, it’s so general and it’s what everyone else is doing. But if I need to see my History teacher specifically I would say, “I’ll stop by the school to see him.” …but I can also choose to say, “I’ll stop by school to see him.”
Trevor Lee Deck Maybe British English speakers use hospital/the hospital the same way.
Lucy Baber: If we were writing it, it’s as if we would be saying, “I need go to go School” or “I’m going to Church”, like that’s the proper name of it. But then if we are stopping by the building for an informal purpose, it feels more like we are stopping by just the building and not the institution of it. Does that make sense? So in the case of the hospital, maybe we would say “I’m going to Hospital” if we were being admitted or having a procedure done, but I’m going to “the hospital” if we were visiting someone else or just picking up some results??
Elsen E. Portugal Yes, I always find that curious. . . . find us an answer, will you?
Trevor Lee Deck I like it, Lucy. But why do the British think of it differently than we Americans do? Because I don’t think an American English speaker would ever say “…to Hospital”.
Elsen E. Portugal Hmmmm, I’m wondering if perhaps the idea in the British mind is of an adjective with an understood noun, like: he is in hospital (care), in which case the article would be inappropriate. Plus, I think the establishment of ‘hospitals’ is younger than the colonization of the US. This divide probably split the meanings also, unlike school and church that have been terms used for much longer.
Trevor Lee Deck Elsen, I think you have the best answer yet. If they (even subconsciously) think of hospital as an adjective, then you’re right they’d never add a definite article. So this is a case of noun elision? Let’s think of another.
Josh Boyd or maybe a verb? like going to get schooled, going to do church, maybe going to the hospital is a phrase that implies the action being treated? or maybe I’m just really hung over and only think I make sense…
Jennifer Mann I say THE hospital… but then I am not pure British anymore, so who knows what is real and what is not!
Hugh Paterson III The Brits are more dative and americans are more Indirect object oriented.
Trevor Lee Deck Thanks, Hugh. Good observation. But do you have a suggestion as to why this could be? Why didn’t we bring that with us. It’s only been a few generations…?
Hugh Paterson IIIwell, some say that the Brits have innovated since the U.S. Colonies were established, and that in some respects we (in the U.S.) hold the older forms or pronunciations. But in this case I think we have innovated (I think without proof) but German, another germanic language like English, has dative prepositions, and they behave the same way as the British English. In German the gender and case is also shown on the preposition. Theses ideas were there in Old English, and some in middle English and today show up in our pronominal system. But when English stopped using case, it became harder to tell a dative object from an indirect object. If we look at how languages move from overt marking to syntactic ordering then there might be some answers there. If I had to take a stab at it from a cognitive perspective; there is this idea of motion and in indo-eurpean it is expressed with the dative. And if I tell someone am going somewhere, that Where should be defined as a place of mutual understanding between the two interlocutors. Maybe not in that particular sentence, but in their common experience. So, definiteness as it functions in English is not needed… and we get English phrases like “I am going to school” (even in the U.S.). There is only one school which is salient between the parties of the conversation. But if I am a detective looking for a fugitive, and I say to some of my team “you check the station” and others of my team “you go to school”. – That second part doesn’t work because the school is not common to the experience of the interlocutors. So, some of this is the difference between how as a culture we understand common experience, some how we express and use the idea of definiteness. If we as interlocutors want to express a more tight knit relational closeness with our interlocutor we might refer to things in a manner which infers more common experience than what is actually a fact. – I reject the idea that Brits think of Hospital as an adjective.