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In the hospital

March 31, 2018

Last night I had the strangest dream I’ve ever dreamed before. Well, one of them. It was a twisty, complicated, plot-driven dream of which I can’t remember the details now, just that it was something to do with hospitals, and was suffused with an overall feeling of frustration, confusion and anxiety; but I do recall one key misunderstanding that played an important role: a woman was reported to be ‘in the hospital’ and an American character in the dream took this to mean that the woman herself was ill or injured, when in fact she was just visiting somebody.

When I woke up I realised that this is a real difference between American English and British English. Americans say ‘in the hospital’ when they are talking about being a patient. But British people don’t. If we are just visiting someone (or if we work there) then we are in the hospital; but if we are ill or injured we are simply in hospital. No article. 

I think this is a general rule, in fact: if we are in an institution as a patient, member, or regular inmate we do not use the. So we go to church, if we are worshippers; but if we are just going in to have a look round we go to the church. Likewise, if we have committed a crime we go to prison; but if we are just going there to teach an Open University student then we go to the prison.

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12 Comments
  1. Spiritman permalink

    A handy distinction, indeed; trust the Mundus Novians to mess it up.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Billy Connolly once observed of a woman saying her husband was “in hospital with his stomach”, well he couldn’t go in there and send his stomach out for a pint could he?
    I think it was Bill Bryson who noted British people say someone is ill in hospital after being injured whereas Americans don’t use ill in that context. Actually they say sick instead of ill anyway don’t they?

    • Yes, you’re right; I don’t they ever use ‘ill’.

    • By the way, did you know that in Wales there are three levels of illness? In ascending order of severity they are bad, bad in bed, and bad in bed under the doctor.

  3. Spiritman permalink

    Sorry to lower the tone, but that sounds like a porn trilogy. 😉

  4. Mark Brafield permalink

    This is timely as I have recently come across two examples of when you do, and do not, use the definite article in the name of a place.

    Every year we go on holiday near Le Bugue, a pretty, bustling little market town in South-West France. With my schoolboy French (thank you Bancrofts), I used to talk about going to ‘Le Bugue’. However, I then learned from the locals that I should actually say that I was going to ‘Bugue’. On reflection, this made sense; I would never say that ‘I am going to the Guildford where I work’. Once I realised this, I deliberately used this construction in conversation whenever I could to pretend that I was a real local, rather than a mere tourist.

    In the same way, the Commonwealth Games are currently being held in a place called ‘Gold Coast’. This is a specific place. If it was simply the coast that had, for example, golden sands, it might be referred to as ‘the Gold Coast’ (like ‘the Cote d’Azur’ or ‘the Ivory Coast’). However, it still sounded very awkward when the BBC sports commentator this morning said that ‘we will now go to the Commonweath Games in Gold Coast’.

    • Yes, you’re right about ‘the’ in French place-names: so one should say, for example, ‘Je vais au Havre’ (not ‘a Le Havre’). As for Gold Coast, I didn’t actually know that it was without an article; I must amend my usage.

      • Simon Carter permalink

        Why do some roads carry the definite article (The Old Kent Road, The Balls Pond Road, The Caledonian Road, The Euston Road, etc) while others don’t?
        Incidentally the claim that there are no roads in the City of London hasn’t technically been true since 1994 when half of Goswell Road was included.

  5. John Dunn permalink

    You are more likely to hear the definite article used with ‘hospital’ and the like in Scotland than in England (and the aforementioned Billy Connolly has a song that illustrates this very usage).

    In Paris there is a restaurant called Le La Rochelle.

    • Oh yes, I know that song: ‘If it was not for your wellies, where would you be?/ You’d be in the hospital or infirmary’.

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