Tricky Prepositions

“In hospital” or “at hospital”? “In school” or “at school”? With an article or without? 

Prepositions and articles make many learners rack their brains and think two, three times or more. If you are one of them, and chances are you are (which is good because it means you care about what you say and how you say it), then read this article. We’ll try to clarify a thing or two.

HOSPITAL 

Consider the following guideline:

In hospital: if you are in hospital, you are there as a patient:

She’s in hospital. – I hope she’ll be fine.

Mark went into hospital after the accident.

In the hospital: if you are in the hospital, you are are a patient of some specific hospital:

You should have stayed in the hospital.

She’s still in the hospital. It’s too early to be discharged.

At the hospital: if you are at the hospital, you are there physically, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re hospitalized, though you may have an appointment there:

I was at the hospital today. They said I’d have to come again.

My sister is sick. I’m at the hospital to visit her and talk to the doctor.

If you are a doctor, nurse or any other hospital worker, you work at a/the hospital:

I like my job at the hospital.

My mother works at the (this) hospital.

At hospital: if it doesn’t matter which hospital exactly is being discussed, the article may be omitted:

I’ll meet her at hospital in New York.

He died of cancer at hospital.

SCHOOL

The noun “school” can also be used with the preposition “at” or “in” preceding it:

At school: If you are at school, you are physically there:

I’m always at school at 12 p.m. on Monday.

At school / in school: if you are at/in school, you attend it:

My daughter is at/in school. I can’t believe how fast time flies!

He hasn’t gone to university yet – he’s still in/at school.

In a/the school: if you think of school as a building, use “in”:

There are 60 classrooms in the school.

I’m in the school waiting for my son’s class to finish.

At a/the school: if you work at a/the school, you are a teacher or any other member of staff:

I teach at the school my nephew attends.

UNIVERSITY and COLLEGE

At the university: if you refer to the institution in general, use “at” + definite article (you are likely to talk about a specific university):

I am studying for a PhD at the university.

He is at London University (there is usually no definite article before the name of a university if the name doesn’t include “of”).

Research at the university focuses on this problem.

Basically, the explanations of the prepositions and articles preceding “school” apply to “university” and “college” too:

She teachers at the university.

Which university were you at?

I need A to get into university.

I like it to be in university but it’s expensive.

All the facilities in the university are modern.

And finally, let’s see a few sentences with the noun “college”:

I met Susie when I was in college. ( = when I was a student)

I would like my children to study at the college. (= this college)

She’s at art college. (= it’s not important which art college exactly; the point is she studies art in/at college)

She is doing business studies at a local college. (= at some local college)

He was educated at Winston College.

Please note that Americans are more likely to use “in” with “college”, “university” and “school” if they have to choose between “at” and “in”, while Britons are likely to use “at”.