Place-Activity Nouns

Most of the time, an English noun phrase that is headed by a common singular noun requires a determiner. All of the following sentences are ungrammatical as written, but can be fixed by adding an appropriate determiner:

I want to eat apple. **

Plane crashed in the river. **

My uncle bought new car. **

There are a lot of exceptions to the determiner rule. Today I want to discuss just one exception, which involves a special set of nouns like “work”, “church”, “school”, or “prison”. These nouns nominally denote places, but also implicitly indicate an activity that occurs at the places. Consider these examples:

I have to go to work early tomorrow morning.

My cousin was released from prison last year.

The minister’s daughter made an embarrassing scene at church on Sunday.

The above sentences are grammatical, even though the noun phrases “to work”, “from prison”, and “at church” are missing determiners. To see the contrast, consider the following ungrammatical sentences:

He got really drunk at bar last night. **

My sister spends every morning in cafe reading philosophy. **

I went to store to buy an umbrella after I lost my previous one. **

There is no obvious reason why “cafe” or “bar” couldn’t have the same special status as “church”, since they are both particular locations where fairly specific types of activities happen.

Possibly the special status of the place-activity nouns (“work”, “church”, etc) reflects the logical fact that a person typically goes to only one of those places. Most people work in a specific and attend school at a specific institution. In logical terms, there is a many-to-one relationship between people and workplaces or people and churches. So place-activity noun phrases are implicitly determined:

I have to get up early tomorrow to go to (my) church.

My sister hates going to (her) school.

In contrast, people often visit several different cafes, bars, restaurants or stores.  With these words, the many-to-one logical relationship becomes a many-to-many relationship, and therefore those nouns cannot be implicitly determined.

This example illustrates the fact that in order for a computer system to make strong grammar judgments, it must be equipped with an advanced lexical database (ie dictionary). “Cafe” and “school” have exactly the same part of speech, but there are sentences which become ungrammatical if you replace “school” with “cafe” (the converse does not appear to be true).

As a subject for another post, observe that the word “home” has an even more special status: “I want to go home” is grammatical without either a determiner or a preposition.

Can you think of other place-activity nouns in addition to the ones I mentioned above?




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