Omission of definite article

Damien Hall djh514 at YORK.AC.UK
Wed Jan 20 10:17:35 UTC 2010

A few quick reactions to things brought up in this thread yesterday, from
my (Standard Southern) British English perspective.


'At table': certainly BrE, as Charles notes, but only upper-class these
days I think. I don't dine with the upper-class very often, but one
relevant piece of experience might be from evening dining at Oxbridge
colleges, where there is (always? Or if not, then almost always) a table
set aside for teaching and research staff: it's known as High Table (in old
Colleges, it is usually in fact on a rostrum) and one dines / is 'at (*the)
High Table'.

Kelli, didn't you say you were at Trinity College, Dublin? Is it the same
there, do you know? The place does, after all, have historic links with
Oxbridge: it's twinned with Oriel College, Oxford, IIRC, and it's classed
as one of the ancient / great universities of the British Isles (along with
Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and are there others?), who give each other
certain reciprocal privileges like dining and a night's accommodation per
term or something.

In people's homes, I would be very surprised if 'at table' were used, and I
would suspect the people using it of upper-class pretensions unless they
were in fact demonstrably upper-class.


'In (the) bed': 'in bed' for people is certainly also BrE; I don't know
anyone who would say 'in the bed', but then my circle of friends doesn't
extend all the way around this country. I would also have to say 'in bed'
whether the person was doing the regular in-bed activity of sleeping, or
unusually in bed, as when they were ill.

But all this is talking about people. Unlike Larry, I would find it very
unnatural to say of a dog that he was 'in bed' (and even if talking about a
doggie-bed). If talking about a bed that was certainly the dog's (so where
he was meant to be sleeping), I'd have to say 'in his bed', I think; if the
dog was in a human's bed, there would still have to be some determiner: 'in
the bed', 'in our bed', etc.


'Catch (a) cold / (the) flu': For me there's also variability between
'catch cold' and 'catch a cold', but I think 'catch (get) a cold' is
commoner here in general. I also think that 'catch (get) the flu' is much
commoner than the version without 'the': I wonder whether that's because
we're now used to talking about certain specified types of flu which differ
yearly, from avian/bird flu to swine flu to, previously, Spanish influenza.
If you talk about getting _the_ flu, therefore, you're referring to
something specified in previous discourse, not an unspecified thing?


There also seems to be something 'external', 'attacking', about 'a cold' or
'the flu' that you can catch, so maybe it's the same with 'the hunger', as
Kelli suggests. I also still think that all of these ('in (the) hospital',
'at (the) University', 'catch (a) cold', 'at (the) table') have something
to do with permanency, or with whether or not the state described is a
'recognised' state that a normal life can be expected to pass through.
(Sorry, I'm not a semanticist, so I think I don't know the terms!) Anyway,
what I mean is that there are recognised cultural or regular habits of
being 'in hospital' (everyone gets ill), 'at school/college/university'
(many people do this), 'at table' (everyone eats), 'in bed' (everyone
sleeps). By contrast, the versions with 'the' or other determiners in them
are more transitory or less culturally-recognised: 'in the hospital' if you
just happen to be there or work there but are not a patient; 'at the
school' if you just happen to be there but are not a student; 'at the
table' if you are using a dining-table to do something else, like work or
play a board-game (I couldn't say "He's working at table"); 'in the bed' if
you (or something) are there doing something not habitually done in a bed.


Damien Hall

University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
YO10 5DD

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