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Hello everyone,

This is my first post here. I'm an editor working at a publishing company in Taiwan that publishes children's English books. We've recently had some problems with the government review process. One of our "mistakes" involved a situation in a book where a mother asks her two children where they are going. The children reply that they are going to school.

Actual dialog:

Mother: "Where are you going?"
Children: "We are going to school."

The Taiwan government (a group of Taiwanese with PhD's in English) told us we must make the following correction:

Mother: "Where are you going?"
Children: "We are going to the school."

I've posted this in another forum. (Taiwan expat forum) and started quite an argument. There seemed to be a general consensus that "...going to the school." is grammatically correct but not used in real conversation, thus shouldn't be written or said like that.

Which is correct? I'm hoping someone could refer me to a resource that would answer this question for me.

Thank you very much,
Glenn
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Comments  
'The school' is not grammatically correct and not natural here EXCEPT for the limited situation in which there has been previous mention of the place (the schoolhouse) and other places (the library, etc), AND there is, for instance, some confusion on the mother's part as to where the children are going. The conversation would run something like this:

Mother: You have several things to do today-- you must drop off your books at the library, stop at school to get the umbrellas you forgot, and go to the park for your tai chi class.

Kids: OK.

Mother: Where are you going first?

Kids: We are going to the school.

'School', like 'church', 'work', 'hospital' (BrE), 'home' and a few other locations are considered social institutions, and do not take articles unless referring to the building itself.

As you said quite naturally in your explanation,
The children reply that they are going to school.
Once more; context context context and context and lastly context.

Without more context, that is, given only these dialogues, I'd plump for the second. I disagree with Mr M that a previous mention is necessary. What I base my reasoning on is that it would be a notably dumb mother who didn't know where her children were going on a school day.

"going to school" means to go there for the purpose of studying.

But this question could easily come up if it were not a school day and the mother simply wanted to know where the kids were going. In this case, "the school" would be the normal response,

We're going to the school [playground to play].
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Yes, not necessary. The main difference is between building and social institution. I agree that the mother is a little forgetful on this Monday morning. Perhaps the problem is that the dialogue set-up is not realistic. An aged neighbor might better ask the question. I presume that the teaching point is that

Children go to school.
Parishioners go to church.
Patients are in hospital'
I go to work every morning.
Evildoers go to prison.

Otherwise, the lesson is a source of confusion with no right answer.
I would guess that most native speakers would default to 'going to school' in this example.

But if I understand the question correctly, Glenn, you really need a reference from some reputable work on grammar or usage to support his case.

I don't have any such works myself, but maybe someone else will cite a relevant passage.

In the meantime, I notice that '(we are) going to the school' googles much more weakly than '(we are) going to school'.

The results seem to confirm 'going to school' for the everyday usage. (Though I agree that this is by no means an exemplary mother.)

Perhaps an analysis of the first few hits in each case would provide enough evidence to support your point.

MrP
Clearly, the context is not rich enough to make any absolute decisions. A few comments.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

In the meantime, I notice that '(we are) going to the school' googles much more weakly than '(we are) going to school'.

The results seem to confirm 'going to school' for the everyday usage. (Though I agree that this is by no means an exemplary mother.)

Perhaps an analysis of the first few hits in each case would provide enough evidence to support your point.

---------------

JTT: This is one case where, to my mind, Google would not accurately reflect these differences. "going to school" would be the most common because the other is a meaning particularly particular to speech.

One example from Google illustrates the difference I was pointing up.

"Yahoo! How to Choose a Law School with Ease
... Go to the school and check it out. Talk to students and faculty. Walk around.
Kick the tires. Then make a decision. ... "

JTT: Without 'the' it would be ungrammatical for this meaning.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Children go to school [to learn]. Children go to the school[ground] to play on holidays.

Parishioners go to church. Some go to the church to talk, to drop something off, to clean it.

Patients are in hospital' [BrE use as a patient with no 'the'; NaE uses 'the' for both meanings]

I go to work every morning. But you don't go to work just to grab some files.

Evildoers go to prison. But I can't go to prison simply to talk to the warden.

==

JTT: Clearly there is a difference, that pointed up by Mr M; the reason the location is being used, as a building or as a social institution.

Context is VITALLY important in determining what words people choose for language. The mother in question could be addressing two kids who were heading off without eating their breakfast, and in this case, the intonational pattern on "Where are you going?" would be quite different than the normal neutral.
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I don't disagree about context, JT. But on the basis of the information we have, I would happily put my £5 on a simple ABC type dialogue:

{smiling mother at door}
'Where are you going?'
{gleeful upward-turned faces}
'We're going to school!'

etc etc.

Mothers in children's books are generically empty-headed, much given to pointing at aeroplanes and exclaiming brightly 'Look at the donkey!', etc. I'd be surprised if complex non-breakfasting scenarios surrounded this snippet.

I agree too about googling. But if you look at the first couple of pages of examples in each case, you do see a pattern, of the kind you suggest. And pointing out that pattern may help make the case.

MrP
I know what prescriptive grammar books say about "go to school" and "go to the school".

See the google results;
(1) go/went to school to learn ... 192500 go/went to the school to learn ... 125
(2) go/went to school to see ... 1075 go/went to the school to see ... 6493
These results look in good agreement with what prescriptive grammar books are saying.

But, look at the result as follows;
(3) go/went to school to play ... 520 go/went to the school to play .... 49
Now, to some kids, the primary purpose of going to school seems to be rather playing than learning.

paco
I suppose to 'play' some kind of sport, in many cases.

Hearteningly, 'I went to school to study as hard as I could' returns no hits.

MrP
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