I hear british speakers omit the def. article and speak as if the noun were personal –
“Take me to hospital”
“When did you go to university?”
(Courtroom) “My lord, witness is in error”
How did this different use occur? The omitting of ‘the’ strikes american ears as odd. Or do I have it backwards, did Americans add ‘the’ where before it was unnecessary?
Here in America, I have heard nurses of different doctor’s offices refer to their doctor as “Doctor,” not “Doctor so-and-so,” and not, “The Doctor,” just “Doctor.” As in:
Doctor will see you now.
Make an appointment with Doctor.
Doctor has given you a referral to the lab.
We use ‘the hospital’ but have other uses that might sound bizarre to other English speakers “the AIDS”, “the arthritis” etc. These are by no means universal in Ireland but are common enough to mention.
Your example “When did you go to university?” I would interpret as meaning
“When did you attend general college/university?” whereas with the definite article it would mean “When did you last visit the specific university?”
Here in the American South we even stick articles in where there shouldn’t be any at all. “I’m going to the Wal-Mart, do you want to go?” “He’s got the AIDS, you know.” “The doctor says I got the sugar.”
Go to a nursing home or similar environment. “Doctor” is used as a proper noun when talking down to patients. I’ve heard this usage in the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, New England, and Northwest regions, as well as in Canada.
I’ll note that in Canada and perhaps Britain, colleges and universities are completely distinct. Here, universities are just large colleges. So even if we go to a university, we’re still going to college. They can only go to college or university, not both. (Well not at the same time anyway.)
If you are in hospital/university/etc/ or taken to hospital/going to university, in British usage, you are a beneficiary of whatever the institution was set up to accomplish: a patient in a hospital, a student in a university, etc. The identity of which specific hospital/university/whatever is subordinated to the general concept of being in one of them.
The definite article suggests the physical environs – one goes from the commercial centre to the university by travelling northeast; one goes to the hospital to visit a sick friend or relative.
American usage, of course, fails to make this distinction, using the definite article in the first case as well as the second.
Correct - in Britain, ‘college’ mostly refers to just about any educational institution which is neither a school or a university. There are some exceptions, such as the quasi-independent colleges (Imperial College, King’s College London, etc.) which make up the University of London.