At School and at the School

Compare school and the school:

Alison is ten years old. Every day she goes to
school. She's at school now. School
begins at 9 and finishes at 3.

When we say that a child is at school or goes to school, we are not necessarily thinking
of a particular school. We are thinking of
school as a general idea.

Today Alison's mother wants to speak to her
daughter's teacher. So she has gone to the
to see her. She's at the school now.

Alison's mother is not a pupil. She is not "at
school", she doesn't "go to school". But if she
wants to see Alison's teacher, she goes to the
(= Alison's school, a particular school).

We use prison, hospital, university, and church in a similar way. We do not use the when we are thinking of the general idea of these places and what they are used for. Compare:


"You're going to prison" said a police officer


I went to the hospital to visit my grandfather



• Tim's brother is in prison for robbery. (He is a prisoner. We are not thinking of a particular prison)

•Mrs Jones goes to church every Sunday.

• Mrs Jones goes to church every Sunday.
(to a religious service)

• Tim had an accident last week.

• He was taken to hospital. He's still in hospital (as a patient)

• Tim's went to the prison to visit his brother.
(He went as a visitor, not as a prisoner.)

• She's at the hospital now. (as a visitor)

• He went to the church to repair the roof. (not for a religious service)

• Excuse me, where is the university, please?(= the university buildings)

Note: with most other places, you need the. For example, the cinema, the bank, the station.

Bed, work, home

We say: "go to bed / be in bed" etc. (not "the bed"):

•  It's time to go to bed now.             
• This morning I had breakfast in


• I sat down on the bed. (a particular piece of furniture)

We say:

1. go to work / be at work / start work / finish work etc. (not "the work"):

•  Ann didn't go to work yesterday.     
• What time do you usually finish work?

2. go home / come home / arrive home / be at home etc.:

•  It's late. Let's go home.                         
• Will you be at home tomorrow afternoon?

3. We say "go to sea / be at sea" (without "the") when the meaning is "go/be on a voyage":
•  Keith is a seaman. He spends most of his life at sea.


• I'd like to live near the sea.                 
• It can be dangerous to swim in the sea.