Articles for locations

Discuss word origins and meanings.

Articles for locations

Post by PhilHunt » Wed Aug 06, 2008 5:41 pm

I've been teaching the use of articles with places/locations recently and my students always ask why we use articles with some nouns and not with others.
Over the years I've invented my own explanations in the absence of any other.

1) Use of 'the'+article
Let's go to the cinema/supermarket/theatre/doctor

2) Use of 'a'+noun
Let's go to a restaurant

3) No article
My daughter goes to school/university
I go to work everyday.
Let's go home

I imagine that the use of 'the' in 1) is due to the fact that societies previously worked on a local (microcosm) scale. I imagine that small communities would have one of each amenity and quite probably one doctor or dentist, as such, language evolved to reflect this. The fact that these days we have many of such amenities in each town has not been updated in the language except for in some cases such as 2)
The non-use of articles with place names 3) is more confusing because it would be more logical to follow the first rule Ie:I go to 'the' school. However, I wonder if the common element in 'school, work, home' is that they are places we spend the majority of our lives, so, this could be reflected in the rejection of an article.
This use or non-use of the article is not mirrored in Italian so I imagine it is not reflected in Latin or Romance languages. I have no idea if Anglo Saxon or Nordic languages have this in common though. I'd be interested to know.

I'd also be interested to know if the more learned amongst you have ever come across any rule or explanation for this irregular pattern in the use of articles.
Last edited by PhilHunt on Mon Sep 01, 2008 10:58 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Aug 06, 2008 6:18 pm

In the case of school/university/work, to my mind the emphasis is more on the fact of the activity than on the location in which it occurs (in other words, your examples would be interpreted by most readers as "XXX is currently studying," "YYY is regularly working"). This may at least partly account for the absence of the article.

However, there is no rule that I am aware of governing the usage or otherwise of an article in the examples you cite. The individual usages must simply be accepted as given.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by trolley » Wed Aug 06, 2008 6:49 pm

When I was younger, I had a friend who always claimed to have seen something or watched something on “the” T.V. (back then, even the luckiest or richest families only owned one television set). To me this always sounded like there was something physically on (top of) his T.V. He would reply “We’re talking on “the” telephone, aren’t we? What’s the diff?” I didn’t have an answer. I thought about him years later when I saw Monty Python’s penguin on the telly skit.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by JANE DOErell » Wed Aug 06, 2008 7:01 pm

This may not be exactly what you are discussing. In the unlike event that you do not already know about this http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003203.php titled "THE" + FREEWAY with links to links that in turn have links.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by Bobinwales » Thu Aug 07, 2008 9:40 am

I go to work everyday
The gluing together of “every” and “day” is interesting. I have noticed it happening a lot (alot?) lately, Phil does it continually.

To my ancient eye, it is wrong. The phrase is surely, “I go to work every day.“ Could you say “I go to work eachday”.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Aug 07, 2008 9:50 am

I suspect that someone who writes "I go to work everyday" is probably being erroneously influenced by the adjective 'everyday', as in "Even in their everyday lives, famous people cannot turn off their recognisability".

There is no similar adjective 'eachday', otherwise I am pretty sure we would also regularly see that error cropping up.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by PhilHunt » Thu Aug 07, 2008 10:30 am

Once you've finished picking holes in my use of every day v. everyday would anyone like to address the original question?
It seems to me that picking holes in peoples spelling is a knee-jerk reaction to being offended in some way. I see exactly the same thing on musician boards. If I have offended any of you, I am sorry as it was not intended. Let's rise above this, shall we?

Erik, if there is no rule governing the use of the articles, would you like to speculate an origin. My ideas are purely based on speculation about the gradual evolution of language together with societies and to my mind makes sense. Your theory that the absence or the article is due to the continuous nature of the action seems possible but excluded the example of 'home'.
I'm trying to approach this in a scientific way, where the most logical proof would seem to be the best explanation.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by PhilHunt » Thu Aug 07, 2008 10:40 am

JANE DOErell wrote:This may not be exactly what you are discussing. In the unlike event that you do not already know about this http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003203.php titled "THE" + FREEWAY with links to links that in turn have links.
Thanks Jane,
I'm very familiar with the use of the article and place names but I found the link interesting anyway. Thanks.
It reminds me of a phenomenon here in Northern Italy where people use the article 'la' or 'il' with peoples names. "Lei è la Michela" This is localised to Northern Italy and it grammatically incorrect but very much used. It often bleeds into my student's English "She is the Michela".
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by Bobinwales » Thu Aug 07, 2008 12:09 pm

Phil, “picking holes in spelling” is not any sort of knee jerk reaction, nor indeed was I doing so. As a forum which concerns itself with the English Language, I feel that spelling is a very serious constituent part, as is the modern trend of making words into an ungainly portmanteau.

I am not an iota offended, I am concerned that a teacher of English as a foreign language may not be giving spelling the gravity that it deserves I grant you.

I admit I was off topic; I will start a thread later today.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by PhilHunt » Thu Aug 07, 2008 12:26 pm

Bobinwales wrote:Phil, “picking holes in spelling” is not any sort of knee jerk reaction, nor indeed was I doing so. As a forum which concerns itself with the English Language, I feel that spelling is a very serious constituent part, as is the modern trend of making words into an ungainly portmanteau.

I am not an iota offended, I am concerned that a teacher of English as a foreign language may not be giving spelling the gravity that it deserves I grant you.

I admit I was off topic; I will start a thread later today.
My comment was not aimed at you Bob but since you brought up the topic I've noticed that you often express concern about my abilities as a language teacher in both open forum exchanges and privately on occasion. I can only stand by the results of my work, which have been successful, and say that the failings in my own spelling do not reflect on those of the students. Most students of language are adults and will not learn their spelling from a teacher but from a book and exposure to the language. An EFL teachers role is principally to instruct in the use of English in context and to correct errors, not to teach spelling as such, which is usually the role of primary instruction. The teaching of spelling is usually encountered during the teaching of grammar rules such as adverbs, comparatives, superlatives etc. It is not usual to teach a student how to spell, for example,'communicate' as they would be exposed to this during the natural learning process. It would be important however to teach the use of prefixes, suffixes and conjugation.
You must also understand that most students are learning English for a reason, travel, work abroad etc. and as such communication is the key factor, which is markedly different from the instruction of a British or American child's school education where they already have a proficient communicative use of the language but require instruction in the grammar and spelling of written English.
In my time as a teacher I have successfully prepared students for placements in American companies, Universities, for TOEFL for job interviews in English as well as the hundreds of students I have successfully helped to learn English from zero to advanced levels, including businessmen, medics, nuclear physicist, soldiers and everyday Joes.

If I were a University professor teaching English Language to English students, I would obviously have to work harder on my failings in spelling. I personally find native English speaker's inability to correctly use the Perfect tenses a much greater failing which I see continually demonstrated on this board.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by hsargent » Thu Aug 07, 2008 2:13 pm

It has always stood out to me when talking to Europeans.

I am going to hospital versus going to the hospital.

I am going on holiday versus I am going on vacation. ( in US, there are only 9 or 10 holidays per year as designated by the government)

I am going to University versus I am going to college. ( no article but difference does not designate the size of the institution)( in Texas the University implies Texas University, Thee University is Baylor, a Baptist University)

The reference to a restaurant versus the restaurant, the first implies the restaurant has not been chosen, and the restaurant implies there is only one.

All of this is empirical versus rules. I have always assumed the basis of use of an article or not is rooted in knowledge of languages other than English.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by russcable » Thu Aug 07, 2008 4:03 pm

hsargent wrote:(in Texas the University implies Texas University, Thee University is Baylor, a Baptist University)
Sorry to nitpick, but having lived in Texas since 1982, I've never encountered the general assumption that "the University" was the University of Texas (there's no Texas University AFAIK). I imagine it would be the case for people living near Austin, but that would apply to any nearby major university, e.g. people in Lubbock would assume Texas Tech, people in College Station would assume Texas A&M, etc.
Also, I've never heard the Thee University joke before (my niece is starting her 3rd year at Baylor this fall and I know many alumni), but googling - "thee university" baylor - gives 700 hits confirming the inside joke does exist.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by Phil White » Fri Aug 08, 2008 12:58 am

Back to the topic. It's an interesting one.

In all Phil's examples, we're not necessarily thinking of the location, but of the activitiy associated with the location. They are all examples of metonymy.

They could just as well be expressed as:
  • Let's watch a film
  • Let's do the shopping
  • Let's eat out
  • My daughter is in higher education
  • I work at the office every day
  • Let's go and have someone put a latex glove up my orifices
... and so on.

Semantically, they are not simple expressions of location. To a greater or lesser extent, it is the activity associated with the location that is important.

The use of articles in modern German and OHG and MHG differs significantly and unpredictably in the examples Phil gives, so the difference can't come from the Germanic roots of English.

None of my grammars gives anything helpful on this issue (or nothing I can track down).

I would suspect that Phil is broadly correct with his analysis of cases 1 and 2, namely that the (possibly historical) specificity of the reference determines the use of the definite or indefinite article.

In case 3, I suspect that the metonymic weight is such that neither article is required, because we are very much talking about an activity, and not the location at which the activity takes place. (As I said above, "to a greater or lesser extent," and here it is to a greater extent). The apparent exception is "let's go home", although I would often see that as a statement "let's stop what we are doing", e.g. "let's leave this party".

No support from the heavyweights for any of this, though.
I personally find native English speaker's inability to correctly use the Perfect tenses a much greater failing which I see continually demonstrated on this board.
Any examples? Bearing in mind, of course that US usage and UK usage are very different. I had never noticed that our American members were generally using anything but US forms and our British and Australian members the British/Australian forms.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by PhilHunt » Fri Aug 08, 2008 1:15 pm

Phil White wrote: Any examples? Bearing in mind, of course that US usage and UK usage are very different. I had never noticed that our American members were generally using anything but US forms and our British and Australian members the British/Australian forms.
Did you deliberately plant that example ;) or is the past form insinuated somewhere in the paragraph? ;)

I wonder if the use of 'home' without a preposition is influenced in some way from or has influenced French and Italian.
In Italian you can say: "Questa è la mia casa" or "Questa è casa mia" without an article. This is also similar in French with 'La maison' and 'Chez-moi'.
The fact that home comes from a P.Gmc source suggests not, but you never can be sure.

hsargent: I've also noticed that hospital is used without an article.
"They took her to hospital" but "They took her to the police station"
Again, I wonder is the reason for this is the fact that it is an imported word from O.Fr hospital which would have had a weak sounding article l'hospital and as such when native British speakers heard it they assumed there was no article. I'm just speculating here.
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Re: Articles for locations

Post by zmjezhd » Fri Aug 08, 2008 2:18 pm

I wonder is the reason for this is the fact that it is an imported word from O.Fr hospital which would have had a weak sounding article l'hospital and as such when native British speakers heard it they assumed there was no article. I'm just speculating here.

Well, police station is non-native, too, as it's from a Greek and a Latin word. French chez is thought to be from an older Latin ablative-locative form 'at the house' (literally casa in Latin is a 'rustic cottage', as opposed to domus 'a house'). English home is not quite the same as at (the) hospital in that it can be somewhat adverbial in usage. Cf. 'I went home' vs 'I was at home'. I immediately thought of uses of the definite article or not when distinguishing between definite and generic forms: e.g., 'I read a book', 'I read the book(s)', and 'I read books'; 'Elephants never forget', 'The elephant is a mammal', etc. I'm just speculating, but I think the use of a definite article with a location is idiomatic and unpredictable.
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