In the recently released film The Master, Amy Adams plays Peggy Dodd, the wife of cult leader Lancaster Dodd. On Thursday, Terry Gross interviewed Adams ("From Sweet To Steely: Amy Adams In 'The Master''", Fresh Air 9/27/2012), and something that Adams said struck my ear:
… he'd just say hey, come to set, I want you to- to do something …
"He" is the film's writer and director, Paul Thomas Anderson. And what struck me was Adams' inclusion of set in the class of singular count nouns that can be used in a prepositional phrase without a determiner, in a non-referential or generic interpretation: come to bed, go to college, stay in school, and so on.
There are several other count nouns associated with acting that can be used this way, at least in limited contexts: on/off stage, on/off camera, on/off screen. (The choice of preposition also matters — "come to stage" probably would also have caught my attention, while "on set" probably wouldn't have.)
Presumably a noun gets added to this list when it comes to represent a common or important abstract status for the members of some speech community. Thus "go to church" becomes "go to meeting" or "go to temple" for those whose places or occasions of worship are called "meetings" or "temples", and similarly for "at church", "in church", and so on. But this isn't quite enough — I don't think that even the most dedicated chemistry researchers would talk about "going to lab". [Update — I was wrong about this one, as Carrie documents in detail.] And when you're at lunch, no one would say that you're "at bar", even if a bar is in fact where you are.
There may be some relevant semantic differences between churches and laboratories or bars, but in the end, it seems that this class of nouns is lexically as well as semantically restricted. Thus the British expression "in hospital" is ungrammatical in American English, where "in the hospital" is required — but I don't think this is because Yanks and Brits think of hospitalization in different ways.
Still, it seems that members of certain "communities of practice" extend this class of anarthrous status-nouns in community-specific ways. Here's a larger context from that Amy Adams interview (you can listen to the whole thing on the Fresh Air site), where she also uses the phrases "look in camera" and "staring into camera" in ways that I found striking:
|Terry Gross:||[…] Um what- what did you think about or talk about
when thinking about those exercises and why you're putting
people through them?
|Amy Adams:||Well, in the original script that I read, my character was not involved in those.
Paul very much um would sort of
come- he'd just
say hey, come to set, I want you to- to do something, like the-
um in the film the exercise that I do is um what- what color are my eyes?
Um and he just had me look in camera and basically ask
different questions as he called them out.
Um it wasn't something that I had a lot of time to put a lot of thought into.
Um he was telling me in the moment what to say,
so it's a great exercise in staying focused and staying in character.
Um it's almost like hypnosis, that I felt like I was hypnotized by the process of doing it,
staring into camera and repeating these questions and
that's what it- what struck me
when I was participating.
There are a couple of times I appear on screen and- and those weren't scripted, those were um
those were in Paul's imaginings in the moment…