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Why is an article not used before the noun in sentences such as the one below?

See you in (the, a) court.

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Generally, you use a zero article with abstract nouns:

I fell in love. (not a or the love)

In your example, court is being used as an abstract noun representing the legal system and its activities in general. Note the difference between court (zero article) and courtroom (article):

The judge is in the courtroom this morning. (Specifies her location, but not her activity - maybe she's just sitting there catching up on paperwork.)

The judge is in court this morning. (Specifies that she is actively presiding over one or more legal procedures.)

Likewise, you can create the same distinction with your example:

See you in the courtroom.

This says that there's a place (the courtroom) where we will both be in the future, but does not specify what we will be doing: we could be involved in the trial or in the jury or even just spectators.

See you in court.

This says that we will be directly involved in a legal trial, usually as opposing parties on either side (although a judge might also say this to one of the litigants), and we will go through the process of holding the trial.


A few people have pointed out in the comments that you can use articles in front of what seem to be abstract nouns. This tends to be used when you are narrowing down the meaning to one specific instance of that abstraction. On another site, a frequent ELL contributor (FumbleFingers) wrote this:

[using] the focusses on a specific instance of something, whereas a implies one among many possibilities.

Examples:

The court ruled in favor of the defense. (one specific court)

To continue, we need access to a court of law. (one among many possibilities)

See you in court. (not specifically one instance; just the general abstract concept of formal legal proceedings and maybe I'm willing to drag you from venue to venue and through multiple appeals)

Or to use abstract noun "argument", which was raised in the comments:

This is not relevant to the argument. (the specific on we're having)

They were having an argument. (one argument at a particular time)

We can resolve this through argument. (the abstract concept of adversarial discussion, not necessarily confined to one single discussion)


And as a digression, you do see "the/a court" for other definitions of the noun court where it is a definite location. When speaking about a tennis court, for example, you could hear someone say:

See you on the court [to play a match of tennis].

  • 2
    I'm not convinced that this use without an article with institutions is the same as the use for abstract nouns; but otherwise a good exposition. Note that in British English: "hospital" comes in that category: we would only say "in the hospital" if we were emphasising the particular hospital. This is not the case in American English (or Canadian?) – Colin Fine Jan 21 at 18:50
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    @ColinFine - I think that using the institution without an article adds on the abstract concept of "being involved in the institution's primary purpose." Unless I'm wrong (I'm not native Canadian and the usage still isn't natural to me), even with the in hospital usage, you have "He's sick and in hospital," versus "She manages the janitorial department in a hospital." The former includes the abstraction of health care provided in a medical center; the latter is a concrete place that is a medical center. – Canadian Yankee Jan 21 at 19:07
  • I don't think "abstract noun" is the right concept here at all. The abstract nouns "possibility", "argument", and "idea", for example, are all regularly used with "a" and "the". For that matter, the same is true of "court"; we say "The court ruled that [...]" (not *"Court ruled that [...]"), "Sometimes a case can be appealed to a higher court" (not *"to higher court"), etc., which are no less abstract than "in court". – ruakh Jan 21 at 21:02
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    @ruakh : A frequent contributor to ELL noted in another forum that you can use articles in front of abstract nouns in some cases. Quoting: "[using] the focusses on a specific instance of something, whereas a implies one among many possibilities. I can add to my answer. – Canadian Yankee Jan 21 at 21:26
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    @EdGrimm: I think you've misunderstood my comments somehow. Court is indeed an abstract noun, and I'm not suggesting otherwise. But that doesn't mean that everything about the word is due to that fact. (Imagine that this answer had claimed "Generally, you use a zero article with nouns". That would obviously be wrong, right? Even though court is a noun? Well, the current version -- "Generally, you use a zero article with abstract nouns" -- has the same problem: yes, court is an abstract noun, but no, that's not why "in court" lacks an article!) – ruakh Jan 22 at 0:54
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In this case, court is being used to convey a concept (justice) rather than the building of the court. When using a noun as a concept, the article is often omitted, but not always.

This is analogous to 'going to church', 'going to school' and a host of other nouns. When saying "I'm going to church" you're implying that you're going to pray. The actual building isn't important. On the other hand, if you're going to a church to pick up some paperwork, you would generally say 'going to the church'.

With a hospital, I believe 'going to hospital' is said in the UK, whereas we say 'going to the hospital' in the U.S. However, even is the US, we would say 'he's going into surgery'. Going into the surgery would imply going for some purpose other than surgery.

It is interesting that we say 'going to church', 'going to synagogue' but I've never heard 'going to mosque'.

  • 1
    This answer is much better than the other (+1), but it suffers from the same problem to a lesser extent. (Note that you can't say "I'm going to church" if you're just going to your bedroom to pray alone before bed!) – ruakh Jan 23 at 0:43
  • In the US, we wouldn't say "going into the surgery," because (unlike in the UK) there is no place called a surgery in the US. – David K Jan 23 at 14:25

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