A 1996 Staples commercial enthusiastically captures parents’ feelings about the start of the school year: a father gleefully pushes a carriage through a Staples store, followed by two children looking both mortified at their father’s antics and devastated to be heading back to school. A version of Andy Williams’ holiday classic, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” plays in the background while a voice says: “It’s back to school time at Staples!”
Whether you enjoyed it on your own or used it to tease your children or teacher friends at summer’s end, this commercial has been a staple (pun intended) of the back-to-school season for nearly two decades.
As an editor, though, I can’t help but ask why is it back to school and not back to the school or back to schools? Certainly if I were to write about one specific school, I would write the school. And if I were writing about schools as a category, I would write schools.
Let’s find out.
English’s definite determiner, the, comes before a noun and tells readers that a specific item is being referred to, one readers are already familiar with. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language puts it succinctly: “Use of the definite article here indicates that I expect you to be able identify the referent.”
Generally, readers can identify the referent because:
- The preceding text identifies it: Sandy spent a lot of money on textbooks. She knew the books would be expensive.
- A connection to the item is inferred: While touring houses, Liz and Steve talked about how much work the kitchens seemed to need.
- The text that follows the noun (the postmodifier) identifies it: The book that I left on the table is for you.
Less commonly, the can be used with a singular noun to indicate a reference to a whole class:
Horses are majestic animals.
The horse is a majestic animal.
But the isn’t used when the noun is preceded by a pronoun or a possessive noun: the hat, his hat, that hat, Sean’s hat.
So far, usage of the is fairly straightforward. But because English is English, there’s a long list of situations in which the shouldn’t be used when we might think it should be.
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We don’t use the before personal names, unless we’re distinguishing between two people with the same name or referring to a group:
Sean loves to build.
The Sean who loves to build wrote a book on architecture.
The Brenners live in a house that Sean built.
We also don’t use the before place names (New York City), but there are exceptions (the United States). Yet these two rules are only the beginning.
We also don’t use the before:
- The names of meals: We ate breakfast late today.
- Abstract nouns, unless they’re used in a particular sense: We felt love, while they felt hate. The love we felt was equal to the hate they felt.
- Means of transportation and communication when they occur in prepositional phrases starting with by: David heard the news by radio. David heard the news on the radio.
- Days, months, and seasons, when the nouns are not followed by postmodifiers: Summer in Florida is too hot for me; the one summer I visited Florida was miserable.
- Times of day within some prepositional phrases: Cindy packs her lunches in the morning; at night she is too tired to do so.
- A parallel structure of noun + preposition or coordination + noun: Dinah went from room to room, talking with all her party guests.
- Game names: Americans love baseball and football.
- Countable nouns used as a form of address: Easy there, laddie.
- Institutions, as long as they’re doing their primary function: These include church, prison, court, school, and college, as in Jane and Nathan go to school in Boston.
Other nouns also follow the institutions rule, but only with certain meanings or in certain uses. For example, when work is used to mean “a place of employment” or “the activity by which a person earns a living,” the is dropped:
Many people in the city travel to work by bus or train.
What kind of work do you do?
All of these exceptions would allow the with the noun in different circumstances, as in: The school received a large endowment, allowing it to expand its offerings. The difference is that, in these cases, the nouns are being used as noncountable (mass) generic nouns.
In other words, in our original phrase “back to school,” school isn’t referring to one specific institution that teaches students but to the entire category of such institutions. And instead of behaving like a noun that can be counted as it usually does, school is acting like a mass noun, like sand.
So while you may be going back to the school you regularly attend, all students are going back to school. By now, students and teachers have (hopefully) had time to adjust to their scholarly schedules and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year ” may be embraced for its original meaning.
Until next September.
A version of this article originally published in September 2013 on Virtual Thesaurus.