[This is a fast-access FAQ excerpt.]
This is often quite tricky for those learning English. The
basic rules can be found in the Purdue University Online Writing
Lab's WWW page titled "The Use and Non-Use of Articles" [...]
["The Use and Non-Use of Articles" can now be found at
(very brief), and in "An Overview of English Article Usage for
Speakers of English as a Second Language" by John R. Kohl of
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [...]
[The URL is no longer valid.]
(As explained in the document "Accessing the Internet by E-Mail FAQ"
posted to alt.internet.services, you can obtain textual WWW pages by
e-mail. Send e-mail to "email@example.com" with, in this case,
"send [...] as the message body.)"
[This should now read
as the message body.']
The book Three Little Words; A, An and The: a
Foreign Student's Guide to English by Elizabeth Claire (Delta,
1988, ISBN 0-937354-46-5) has been recommended.
The article "the" before a noun generally indicates one specific
instance of the object named. For example, "I went to the school"
refers to one school. (The context should establish which school
is meant.) Such examples have the same meaning in all English-
The construct <preposition><noun>, with no intervening article,
often refers to a state of being rather than to an instance
of the object named by the noun. The set of commonly used
preposition-noun combinations varies from one dialect to another.
Some examples are:
I went to bed = I retired for the night. Even if I had the
habit of sleeping on the floor, I would still say "I went
to bed" and not "I went to floor".
She is at university (U.K.) = She is in college (U.S.) = She
is a student, enrolled in a particular type of tertiary
institution. This sentence does not imply that she is now
physically present on the campus.
He was taken to hospital (U.K.) = He was hospitalized. (A
U.S. speaker might say "to the hospital" even if there
were several hospitals in the area.)