a/an, the, (nothing)

Last week my class was revising ‘a/an’, ‘the’ and (nothing), otherwise known as the indefinite article, definite article and zero article. One question in the book was ‘There was __ accident as I was going __ home last night. Two people were taken to __ hospital.’ Apart from the people who wanted to put ‘to’ in the second gap (no anyway, and particularly not in this activity, because that’s not what we’re practicing, most students put ‘the’ into the third one. The book was published in the UK by a leading British English ESL publisher, so the expected answer was (nothing): ‘Two people were taken to hospital’ but I said ‘“Taken to the hospital” is certainly not wrong’. After the lesson I checked on Google’s Ngram Viewer. Indeed ‘taken to the hospital’ is the most common usage overall, about twice as common as ‘taken to a hospital’ and ‘taken to hospital’. Superficially, it’s an AmEng v BrEng thing, but even in each region the usage is mixed. AmEng uses ‘taken to the hospital’ far more, ‘taken to a hospital’ medium and ‘taken to hospital’ far less (but it’s still well and truly used). BrEng uses ‘taken to hospital’ far more, ‘taken to the hospital’ less and ‘taken to a hospital’ far less. ‘Taken to hospital’ (and ‘in hospital’) are natural for me. If there there is a distinction, ‘taken to a hospital’ means ‘taken to any hospital, perhaps I don’t know which one’ and ‘taken to the hospital’ means ‘the only hospital (in a country town) or the major hospital (in a suburban centre such as the one where I live)’. One blogger (http://www.casadwyer.com/2008/12/childrens-book-grammar-fail.html) posted this photo:grammar_fail with the comment ‘Could someone please check for typos before printing the next batch?’. A commenter responded: ‘That’s how the Brits use it. It’s not standard American, but it’s certainly not wrong’ and the original poster replied: ‘I guess I’m just a dopey American.’ Another question in the grammar book was ‘When he leaves __ school, he wants to go __ university to study __ law’. I was particularly interested in the second gap – most students said ‘the’, which answer raises most of the same points above. ‘Go to university’ is overwhelmingly used in BrEng, and has skyrocketed in AmEng over the last 50 years, but ‘go to the university’ remains strong there.

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