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Jamaica Inn episode 5 from BBC learning English drama section:

The dialogue says:

Mary: My aunt is in bed.

She doesn't say -

My aunt is in the bed.

That section is for teaching English. Are they using incorrect English?

  • 2
    Can you please explain why you think "the" is necessary here? – Catija Jun 13 '15 at 5:27
  • @Catija I thought the is used before things. I live in a non native English speaking country and every one here says please sit on the chair. – Aquarius_Girl Jun 13 '15 at 7:34
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    @Catija In bed is actually rather exceptional grammatically. Similar examples include in hospital (BrE), in prison, or in school. I don't really know of a good way to explain them other than to call them exceptions. They're covered in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, but only very briefly, on page 409. I suppose if I were a learner, I'd just memorize them. – snailplane Aug 8 '15 at 23:17
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It is correct (read "grammatical"). Though bed is normally used as a countable noun, it's better to think of it in in bed as uncountable.

This is common in common fixed expressions about place, time, and movement.

Here are examples of such expressions (according to Practical English Usage by Michael Swan, 70.1 common expressions without articles):

to/at/in/from school/university/college
to/at/in/into/from church
to/in/into/out of bed/prison
to/in/into/out of hospital
(BrE)
to/at/from work
to/at sea
to/in/from town
at/from home
leave home
leave/start/enter school/university/college
by day
at night
by car/bus/bicycle/plane/train/tube/boat
on foot
by radio/phone/letter/mail

Also note that even though these fixed expressions are commonly used without any article, you can use an article if it's appropriate in your context.

In other words, you can use such a noun with a/an or the, or even in the plural (e.g. I've lived in several towns), but keep in mind that it will convey a subtly different meaning.

For example,

  • Have you tried the new bed yet?
  • (a department store trainee asking the manager) What should I do if a customer wants to sleep in a bed?
  • (an example of such fixed expressions) "Where's your sister?" "She's still in bed." "Wake her up!"

The main factor for choosing the right article or omitting the article is, as always: context!


Bonus: Some dictionaries that keep English language learners in mind may make it a little clearer by defining these nouns in common fixed expressions as both "countable" and "uncountable". For example, here is the first definition of bed given by Macmillan Dictionary:

bed
[countable/uncountable] a piece of furniture that you sleep on, consisting of a soft comfortable part called a mattress and a base
double/twin/single bed: The room had two single beds in it.
out of/in bed: It’s midnight – why aren’t you in bed?
get out of bed (=get up): I never get out of bed before 10 a.m.
go to bed: I’ll get home at 11 p.m. and go straight to bed.
put someone to bed: Sam was upstairs putting the children to bed.
make the/my/your etc. bed (=make its covers straight after you have slept in it): Why can’t you kids make your own beds?

You can use these dictionaries to verify the noun in a fixed expression you may find while reading or listening to your materials.

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  • 2
    But one can very definitely say the bed, as in My aunt is in the bed by the corner or Aunt, you just lie down in the bed here and rest. This for the OP, as I'm sure you @DamkerngT know this. Both my examples use the to make a definite reference to a particular bed. – user6951 Jun 13 '15 at 14:29
  • @pazzo so, we have to use article the while referring to a particular bed? Anyways, if I say aunt is in the bed , will it be wrong? – Aquarius_Girl Jun 13 '15 at 15:24
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    @TheIndependentAquarius (Because pazzo's still not here. :-) In those fixed expressions, you can use the noun with a/an or the, or even in the plural (e.g. I've lived in several towns), but it will convey a different meaning. For example, Have you tried the new bed yet?, (a department store trainee asking the manager) What should I do if a customer want to sleep in a bed?, but Where's your sister? She's still in bed. Wake her up! So, it's possible, but not "have to". The main factor for choosing the right article is as usual: context! – Damkerng T. Jun 13 '15 at 16:10
  • @DamkerngT. please add that valuable info to your answer. Thanks a lot. – Aquarius_Girl Jun 13 '15 at 16:23
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    @TheIndependentAquarius As you like it. :-) – Damkerng T. Jun 13 '15 at 16:32
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I find the idea to consider bed uncountable really funny, even if some dictionaries say so. English has a strong tendency to drop the definite article when it achieves next to nothing. The aunt sleeps in the bed she sleeps every day in, so why say "in the bed" when the shorter "in bed" says exactly the same. By omitting the article "bed" doesn't become uncountable. I would say such theories taken from the air confuse learners still more. They must think English is a queer language.

The same phenomenon can be seen in German. Instead of "in dem Bett" (in the bed) German contracts "in dem" to "im" and says "im Bett" (in bed) to get a shorter expression.

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  • I'm sorry to hear that you think such an idea (these nouns in common fixed expressions are uncountable) is funny, though apparently, dictionaries treat them that way. In any case, the learner will have only a few choices to understand these nouns in these expressions: thinking of the nouns as uncountable, looking for the mysterious zero articles, or just remembering the whole list of these expressions. (Personally, I think the zero articles is a little funnier.) I really don't know which way will confuse the learner more. However, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. – Damkerng T. Jun 13 '15 at 16:23
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    @DamkerngT. I think that learners have to be confused for a while, one way or the other. I've been learning English for longer than I care to remember and articles (the articles? see, it's terrible) are still killing me :-). @ rogermue I understand that you used the example from German to make a point that omitting the article is a way of being rational with words, but "im = in+dem", "ins = in das" still contain the article (you can easily distinguish that im is dative and ins accusative), so a learner who is a native German speaker might be confused by such an example – Lucky Jun 13 '15 at 20:13
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    Yes, rogermue, I agree that stating that bed is uncountable seems arbitrary (@DamkerngT.), but not any less arbitrary than saying English does away with the definite article when it achieves next to nothing. We don't generally say mom's in kitchen even though there's only one kitchen in >99% of homes of native English speakers. – Alan Carmack May 3 '16 at 5:27

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