I searched the meaning of prison on Goggle, and it gave an example sentence: "He died in prison." I wonder why there's no "a" or "the" before it when it's a countable noun, right?

Somebody broke out of (a/the/no article) prison.

Following the pattern, I think I should put no article, but I wanna know the reason.

Also, could you tell me the difference if I change the preposition "break out of/from." Why not "break out from"?


2 Answers 2


"Prison" is one of a number of place names where the usage of the article depends on the situation described.

"He went to prison" means the person was sentenced and imprisoned. "He went to a/the prison" refers to someone who is not a prisoner, but visits the prison building for any other reason (e.g. a lawyer visiting a client, or a prison warden going to work). In this context "go to prison" does not just mean physically entering a building, but rather being imprisoned.

The same applies to some other place names, such as "school" or "church", that are both physical building and institutions: someone who is going "to church" intends to take part in a service, while another person can be going "to a/the church" for example as a tourist, but not to take part in church activities.

  • So, if I say "he goes out of a/the prison," it means someone who's not a prisoner? And if I say it without an article, it would automatically mean that that person is a prisoner?
    – Xyenz
    Sep 15, 2017 at 11:41
  • 1
    Using an article here means we treat prison as a building. Using no article implies prison as an institution.
    – user49199
    Sep 15, 2017 at 12:20
  • Sorry for irrelevancy, but what about "break out of/from"? I know "break out" mean "escape," but difference in meaning would it make by using different preposition? "Escape from" sounds more natural, but "break out of" is just as natural. So, can I use different preposition or "break out of" is a fixed idiom to mean "escape out of"?
    – Xyenz
    Sep 16, 2017 at 1:53

Prison is one of those words that's not only a place/thing, but a state. So you can be in a physical building that is a prison (in the prison) or in a state of being required to stay at a prison due to serving a sentence (in prison).

Hospital/in hospital, punishment/on punishment, notice/on notice are similar.

  • 1
    Note that some of these differ between US English and UK English - for example, "in hospital" is much more UK; in the US we would tend to say "in the hospital."
    – stangdon
    Sep 15, 2017 at 15:57

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