Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mundane continuity

Today, just a smattering of the thoughts which are currently on my mind.

I haven't written here for almost two weeks. I'm taking a little break after getting through the "My brother comes to Taiwan" series. And what now is the current hot topic in my life?

... to hospital ...
... to the hospital ...

What a dilemma! I have become aware in my time overseas that being in the position of teaching English as a second language and living overseas amongst ESL speakers, my own command of old mother tongue is prone to decay and distortion. It is common among people living overseas, especially those employed in the English-teaching profession, that we start to question hitherto automatic grammatical and linguistic contrivances that we have never had to think about before. It also seems to be common that their own English gets progressively worse while that of their students gets better (you have to hope so anyway). Yesterday somewhere in the middle of conversation (should that be "... a conversation ..."?) I uttered the construction "to hospital" to which Andrea reacted to by pointing out that I had officially joined the ranks of the English-impaired ex-pat. This was a state of affairs that I had long feared, as others might fear the four horsemen of apocalypse (probably "the apocalypse") as a sign of impending ... uh ... impending apocalypse.

Sometimes you will be speaking or thinking along nicely when all of a sudden your train of linguistic thought grinds to a halt as you reflect, possibly for the first time in your life, on the meaning or grammatical integrity of a particular phrase or sentence you have just uttered or thought. I find that I can usually apply a little reasoning or recall to the prickly problem and resolve it quickly. But in the case of "to hospital" I was genuinely stumped for the first time and a little bit concerned that I had finally lost it and there would follow seven years of grammatical plague with metaphorical rains of frogs and rivers running with red ink. Yea, my written tradition was bordered by a dark and confusing border of ominous and brooding cloud.

Now, the internet is a wonderful contrivance. I have just now been able to check on the veracity of hospital used with and without a definite article or determiner (by which I mean "the" or "a"). It seems to come down to regional differences, for which I am hugely relived and feel some kind of vindication. The omission of a determiner before some nouns is probably more common than you might think. Here are a few more examples:

to school
to market
to college
on television
in prison
at college
on vacation
in line

So I can relax and continue to say "go to hospital" if I am sick or "Go directly to jail" if I am playing Monopoly. But I still refuse to accept that "healthful" is a real word even though I have heard it many times in the past few years.


al-X said...

Personally I think that should be 'clouds', rather than 'cloud', in that context, but that's just me =P

I'll let 'written tradition' go, as poetic license =P

We will have to speak together sometime. In english. So you may practice.

Adrian Brown said...

Yeah, I had to think about whether to use "clouds" or "cloud". I decided to stick with no "s" in the sense of "cloud" referring to the stuff rather than as objects as in "we were surrounded at the peak of the mountain by a heavy blanket of cloud". Something like that. I promise that next time I talk to you I will use English.