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Thursday, December 11, A.D. 2008
A Language Question

I often have questions about my native tongue, but I do not know whom to ask for answers. I suppose that I could hunt down English professors, but most of the ones whom I have met care little for grammar—they spend their time analyzing the vulvic allusions of feminist post-modern screeds on revolution against the phallocracy. I also cannot easily find answers to such questions on the internet. If I already knew the technical jargon, I would not have to look for the answer. Not knowing the proper terminology, I am left with common English words, and typing normal words into Google is not an efficient manner of finding linguistic information. Similarly, on the National Review the other day, someone expressed surprise to Jonah Goldberg that he had another dog in his life besides Cosmo—named Buckley. Mr. Goldberg responded that he had mentioned Buckley in the past, but searching for concrete results in the archives of the National Review would be a ridiculous task, for obvious reasons . . .

My current question concerns a phenomenon in English in which we treat a certain group of common nouns as proper nouns in that we do not use articles or possessive pronouns with them. The most obvious example is “home.” We often say that we are going home, or that someone is at home. We do not need to say that we are going to our home or the home—we simply say that we are going home. I came up with some other words that we treat this way: school, mass, liturgy, church, temple, and work. My father added that the English sometimes employ “hospital” in the same way, though I have never noticed that, myself.

The practice makes sense in that these things are usually quite individual for a person. Johnny goes to school, and we know that there is one particular school to which Johnny goes—at least at a given stage in his life. Note also that the behavior only occurs with certain words. No one says, “Job was terrible today” (save in notation-speak or in the few instances where folks are stuck with a jackass named Job), but people do say, “Work was terrible today.” We do not go to house, but we do go home, just as we go to Kroger’s, Kings Island, or France. I also wonder why, if we treat such words as proper nouns, we do not capitalize them. Perhaps, this used to be done, though English capitalization from centuries ago seems bizarre to me, as if the Germanic tendency of the language to capitalize all nouns lingered on in some quarters.

So, given the idiomatic character of this linguistic behavior, it simply must have a name. If you are aware of it, please share.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, December 11, Anno Domini 2008
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