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I read in a grammar textbook that when people want to talk about general phenomena they shouldn’t use “the”. For example:

They took him to hospital.

Here the speaker doesn’t mean a specific hospital. Then it is mentioned that in American English, “the” is used for general phenomena too. So:

They took him to the hospital.

Here also, the speaker doesn’t mean a specific hospital.

I wonder if it is a general rule in American English? For example which of the following is correct in American English?

I have to be at the airport by 5PM. (Not a specific airport, but the general meaning of airport.)

or

I have to be at airport by 5PM. (Not a specific airport, but the general meaning of airport.)

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    The speaker is thinking of a specific hospital though, even if just the closest. Same with airport. – pboss3010 Sep 15 at 16:04
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    Re the last example: in BrE we don't say "I have to be at hospital by 5pm." Like court, hospital is an event as much as a place. – Weather Vane Sep 15 at 18:21
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    @Showsni, of those, hospital is the only example where "the" is required. – Alpha Draconis Sep 16 at 17:55
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    @Justin Agreed on university, but not sea. With the, "I went to the sea" generally refers to a specific (probably nearby) body of water (and also could be just spending a day at the beach, not necessarily involving a boat), while "I went to sea" means I went sailing without referencing any specific body of water - but you do actually have to get away from the shore for that one. – Darrel Hoffman Sep 16 at 19:10
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Your textbook, I'm afraid, is not accurate, or perhaps there has been a misunderstanding. American English is no different from its British cousin in the omission of articles for certain nouns which represent institutional locations (e.g. school, jail) or habitual activities and meals (e.g. work, dinner):

  • at home
  • in/to bed
  • in/to town / port
  • at/to work / sea
  • in/at/to school / class / church / court / camp / chambers (of a judge) / prayers
  • at/to practice / rehearsal / drill
  • in/to hospital / prison / jail / detention

Hospital is not used in this way in American English; someone on a hospital stay is invariably in the hospital in AmE, even when not referring to any specific hospital, and regardless of how many hospitals it is possible for one to be at. This is comparable to saying one is going to the store or will be in the office.

For another example, baccalaureate-level education in the U.S. is known as college (regardless of the name or classification of the academic institution). As such, an undergraduate is away at college rather at university, with the latter sounding foreign or even pretentious.

There is no hard-and-fast rule about this, though I believe I have named the most common examples. Sometimes, this pattern is extended to related (or metaphorically related) concepts, but not always. One might be in jail or in prison. As a delinquent adolescent, one might have been in juvie (AmE) — but at no point would one be in penitentiary; it would have to be in the penitentiary.

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    It might also be, especially in (crime/gangster/noir) movies, "in the pen" or "in stir". Or maybe "in lockup" but properly that's the short-term jail for suspects/defendants, not the long-term prison for convicts :-) – dave_thompson_085 Sep 16 at 0:52
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    "They took him to a hospital. He is in the hospital." Note that "a hospital" is correct when talking about any hospital, whereas "in the hospital" is a specific idiom referring to the state of being hospitalized. – shadowtalker Sep 16 at 1:08
  • @shadowtalker it’s perfectly natural to say, “they took him to the hospital“. if someone said, “they took him to a hospital” i’d half expect to find out that the patient has been somehow misplaced or they’re deliberately keeping his location hidden from others. – A.Ellett Sep 16 at 1:40
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    In BrE you can be "in hospital" or taken "to hospital". You cannot be "in airport" or "taken to airport" (those would require "the" or possibly "a"/"an"). I had thought I'd heard "in hospital" in AmE too, but am just a regular visitor not a native speaker of AmE. – abligh Sep 16 at 6:21
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    You say “American English is no different from its British cousin in the omission of articles for certain nouns which represent institutional locations (e.g. school, jail) or habitual activities and meals (e.g. work, dinner)”, and then go on to cite a few exceptions.  I find this confusing; there are differences, so saying “X is no different from Y” is misleading at best. – Scott Sep 16 at 7:52
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Best practice is something like this,

For a non-specific hospital (or you don't know which one): "The took him to a hospital."

For a specific one (even if you only know the specific one in your head): "They took him to the hospital."

Note that this is not a hard rule. "The" can also be non-specific if you want.

What is never okay in American English (as opposed to British English): "They took him to hospital."

Edit to address comments:

Yes, it is always "the airport," or "an airport." Never "They took him to airport."

But user @Weather Vane has humbled me with an exception to the rule. "Court".

"They took him to court to sue him," is correct in American English.
Amusingly, this only applies to legal courts. Leading to the correct sentence, "They took him to court, then afterwards had a bite to eat at the food court, and saw a game at a basketball court."

And there are other exceptions, pointed out smartly in other answers. So I can only say it usually a rule when talking about a place more than you are talking about an event.

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  • What about the examples with "airport"? Is an article needed or not? And why? – Mari-Lou A Sep 15 at 16:45
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    What is always OK in British English: "They took him to hospital." – Michael Harvey Sep 15 at 17:05
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    @Michael Harvey Yes. And "I'm going to bed". My Glasgow friends often say, "I'm away to my bed." But see me? I don't care whose it is. – Old Brixtonian Sep 15 at 17:48
  • Does AmE never say "they took him to court"? – Weather Vane Sep 15 at 18:17
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    They took him to task? – Old Brixtonian Sep 15 at 23:11
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In American English, we always use a determiner (or the plural) when going to hospitals or airports. The form with "the" is used for both cases where "the" makes sense, because you're talking about a particular one, and for the general sense you asked about: "the hospital", "the airport". So in your examples, you should say "took him to the hospital" and "be at the airport".

I've never heard "go to hospital" or "go to airport" in normal use*. While I could guess what meaning was intended, it doesn't truly have a meaning in my dialect.

When you use a language or dialect idiomatically, you don't always phrase things exactly the way you mean. Sometimes there's a more common phrasing, and you choose to rephrase what you're saying to use that more common phrasing. "The hospital" and "the airport" are phrases like that in American English. Even in cases where "go to a hospital" or "go to an airport" might make more sense, people will choose to say "the hospital" or "the airport".

* There are note-taking and headline-writing registers of American English where articles are commonly dropped out, so in those situations you'd find "go to airport", but that's an abbreviation of "go to the airport".

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    Are you saying that ‘‘the hospital’’ is (always) understood to mean a particular hospital?  If so, I disagree. I can say ‘‘I’ve been in the hospital three times this year.’’, and Americans will not necessarily understand that to mean that it was the same hospital all three times. – Scott Sep 16 at 7:37
  • @Scott you're right, I agree. Not sure how to best explain that, I'll have to think (or maybe someone else can just write a better answer explaining this side of it?) It's similar to "the bathroom"; after a number of times in your life of going to the bathroom, it's no longer likely to be the same one. Maybe this just means that I'm wrong to say "it's not for general phenomena", and instead the situation is that we use the version with "the" for both the general and the specific. – Dan Getz Sep 16 at 11:10
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    @cactustictacs you could give a good specific example. Or are you just trying to split hairs? Broken English is not irrelevant, especially on this site, and especially in fictional examples of broken English. You can see in my answer how I addressed a couple registers of English where the use of articles is abbreviated out. Maybe could say something similar about nonstandard American English, but I don't feel that's relevant enough (nor do I know enough to write about this). – Dan Getz Sep 16 at 14:33
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    @cactustictacs "but it's definitely in popular use" no, it really isn't. – eps Sep 16 at 14:49
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    @cactustictacs I looked at the source you linked to. It did not look like it showed what you say it shows. But you could clarify that by giving specific examples. – Dan Getz Sep 16 at 15:07
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I think going to hospital is a special case, in the same way you can go to school. It's less about a specific place than describing an action or state (like being in hospital) so you use that particular phrasing. But we don't have a similar understanding around airports or the concept of an airport, so that's just treated as a normal location and needs an determiner like an or the.

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    to hospital would sound incorrect to an American. You would say to a hospital. – shadowtalker Sep 16 at 1:09
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    While there are plenty of written examples for AmE of 'to hospital' (though at least some of them are from foreign characters in American literature), it quite simply is not idiomatic in modern vernacular in most parts of the US. It will usually be understood, but you'll sound a bit foreign (or possibly a bit pretentious) to most Americans if you use it. – Austin Hemmelgarn Sep 16 at 14:08
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    -1 , I have never heard a native speaker say " to hospital" unless they were trying to sound british. – eps Sep 16 at 14:51
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    Looking through the list in the corpus of US English, all the examples I saw were either people misclassified as US English (guest blog posts, quotes, comments, etc) or mistakes (use "the hospital" in a similar context elsewhere). It's possible that this is a feature of an obscure US dialect, but I don't think that link is good evidence for it. – Paul Sep 16 at 19:19
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    @cactustictacs I would not rely on that website (corpus of US English), much of the content it refers to appears to be poorly written 'blogspam', which sounds like it was written by non-US English speakers. – Bert Sep 16 at 19:55
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For completeness' sake (and a grin) another use of the "the" must be mentioned. Besides the correct use, that is. The likes of Kevin Pollak or Craig Ferguson, for instance, are deliberately calling a certain web service "The twitter". I'm pretty sure, they're not doing that by mistake... ;)

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  • Calling it The Twitter is very common. I thought everybody did it. – Chenmunka Sep 17 at 8:57
  • @Chenmunka Well, I guess "you had to be there". Usually, you would say for instance "I read on Twitter that..." when they would proclaim "I was reading on The Twitter that..." displaying not only a good amount of ironic distance (disguised as self-deprecation), but also -- at least with Pollak -- a special Jewish flavor of irony, I think. And as I'm writing this, I realize I am arguing humor. I shouldn't... Sorry. More to the point: I don't remember ever hearing "the twitter" in casual conversion -- let alone in writing. But honestly, what do I know? I live in Berlin... – Nikolai Talcid Sep 17 at 9:14

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