Come to set

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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:

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… 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:

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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…


  1. M (was L) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    Just a note relating to an earlier thread: in 1888, Casey was "at the bat" – today and for many decades this is odd; he'd be "at bat" or to retain the scansion "up to bat."

    So a further question: Jews, as you suggest, go "to temple" (or to synagogue, or to shul, all used in the same way) but go "to services" (note the plural).

    But Jews also go "to the temple" (etc) when going for non-worship purposes.

    I'm being specific about (American?) Jews because I'm not certain how other groups say it; but I suspect similarly. In my mind's ear, it sounds right to go "to church" for worship, and go "to the church" for a non-worship event.

    Is there a clue in this? No idea, but I'll say this much: I intend to "go home" for as long as I can, and go "to the home" only if and when absolutely necessary.

  2. Erika Hall said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    It's true no one says "Go to bar" but we do use "drinks" and "coffee" in the same manner as "lunch".

    [(myl) Neither would be quite the same, since coffee is a mass noun, and "drinks" is plural. But do you mean that you'd (for instance) explain someone's absence by saying "She's at drinks"?]

  3. Chris said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    I'm not convinced the set of nouns targeted by this is as restricted as myl suggests. I Googled "going to lab" and "come to lab" and found a variety of examples, particularly in the genre of advice writing (i.e., "have students come to lab prepared"; "Read through the experiment before going to lab.") I will say that in these examples, "lab" would seem to refer not so much to the physical space, but rather the community of practices typically associated with scientific lab work, so they still fit with "church" and "college", I think.

  4. E said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    When reading the "camera" examples, my immediate interpretation was that "look in camera" would be better transcribed as "look in-camera", in which "in-camera" is a trade or technical term (as in "in-camera effect") rather than a prepositional phrase.

  5. FM said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    I think the examples of "in lab", "go to lab" are parallel to "in class", "go to class" and refer to lab classes. I would not be totally surprised if chemists were "going to lab", but it's unquestionable that students do this.

  6. Chris said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    @FM, fair point and I think you've brought up a point that myl touches on but is worth exploring in more detail: the role of prepositions. Or even verbal semantics; my collocation Spidey-sense is tingling. It would be relatively straight forward and interesting to collect examples of Verb >> [Prep bare-noun] and see if the pattern we're seeing has more to do with verbal semantics than nominal semantics. Might could be that some verbs coerce singular count nouns into this construction.

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    I would agree with M that there is a distinction between going 'to church' (for a service) and 'to the church' (for other purposes). I think similar distinctions could be drawn with 'to school' and (for Brits) 'to hospital'.

  8. MonkeyBoy said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:53 am

    Determiner-less phrases imply that the actor is filling some stereotypical role in stereotypical actions that are associated with the location. "Home" carries these associations while "house" does not. This can sometimes be stretched to non stereotypical actions such as rioting or shooting as long as it is done by the members – but when an outside agency like the police are called in they get described as going to THE school, church, etc.

    This is similar to the use of "on" in vehicles that you can walk around in. "On" is used for those filling the passenger, driver, etc. roles when the vehicle is functioning as transportation, while bus cleaners at a bus depot work "in" the bus.

    The "on" case appears completely productive while determiner-less locations are mostly lexicalized.

  9. Brett said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    I can attest that people "go to lab" to do research (as opposed to take classes) all the time. If one of my colleagues in solid state physics said he was going "to the lab," I would infer that I was supposed to understand which of his two or three laboratory rooms he was heading toward, presumably as a result of something earlier in the conversation.

    [(myl) Interesting. I looked around a bit on line and was not able to find any clear examples of this sort of thing, except in cases where "lab" meant "lab class", or in the context of telegraphic notes where articles are generally omitted. Can you point to any examples (in blog posts, or newpaper quotations, or web forums, or wherever)? And does the usage extend in your experience to "in lab", "at lab", "from lab", etc.?]

  10. Jessica said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    What about the abandonment of the article before "prom"? When I was in high school in the dark ages of the late 70s, we went (or didn't) to THE prom. Now, my kids go to prom. And it sounds terribly wrong to me. Yet the Amy Adams uses above seem more natural, perhaps because they're part of a "community of practice," as you call it.

    [(myl) If this is a lexical feature, then we expect it to spread to new cases by analogy to old ones, roughly in the way that new -ize verbs have been introduced over time. And we expect such innovations to succeed in those cases where there's a substantial group of people who communicate with one another about the topic in question. "Prom" fits the profile very well, it seems to me. Such generalizations don't happen instantly or automatically, of course. Americans have resisted "in hospital" all these years.]

  11. Mary Bull said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    And then there's doing work "in house" as opposed to outsourcing it.

    Myself, I can't see any rhyme or reason for these usages without determiners to seem right in the cases under discussion. They all feel like idioms, to me.

    [(myl) A better analogy might be quasi-regular derivational morphology. In both cases, there's a semi-consistent syntactic and semantic relationship, and the possibility of extending the set, even though the process doesn't apply freely.]

  12. Tony said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    Another example, also in a "community of practice." I work in publishing; our distributor was basically a bunch of sales and marketing people who would visit bookstores to sell our books, as well as those from other publishers. Anyway, twice a year they'd have a sales conference, where publishers would present the next "season" of books. The salesfolk always referred to this as being "at conference," or more oddly, "at sales conference."

  13. Ken MacDougall said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 11:59 am

    I thought that in BE (not sure about AE) the use of 'the' before certain things meant that you were using the thing for its purpose. Kids 'go to school', parents 'go to the school'. Sick people 'go to hospital', we visit them 'in the hospital'. Or have I made this up?

  14. Steve Tauber said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

    From the gaming community, "in game" is common.

    "I can't talk now. I'm in game."

    Similar to 'in class' I suppose.

  15. M (was L) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    My impression is that Northern BrEng dialects often omit the article?

  16. Doire said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

    Ken MacDougall
    I was just thinking of making that point, so I don't think you're making it up.

    The other British-English stock phrase where the definite article changes the meaning is "in future" vs. "in the future" and I'm wondering if it can be thought of in the same way. It's contrasting a habitual, normal state with a one (or more) off occurrence.

  17. Brett said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

    @myl: It's difficult to find that much documentation of "in lab" used for research labs online, because the use with teaching labs is definitely a lot more common (as are medical uses). I did locate this: (apparently written by a grad student); this (by someone seemingly in medical research); and (as a possible example).

    I don't know if I've heard any other prepositions used with anarthous "lab" in the context of a research laboratory, and I don't feel I have any good intuition about which ones might seem acceptable to others. The other specific forms you mention all sound vaguely wrong, but I can construct imaginary sentences in which I suspect I would find them unremarkable. (For example: "Is Scott meeting us for lunch?" "Yes, but he'll be a few minutes late. He's coming from lab.")

  18. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    Ken McDougall: I agree with your examples, but don't they show that 'the' means you are are not using the thing for its purpose?

  19. Itamar said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

    There are a few dozen to lab examples to be found on #WhatShouldWeCallGradSchool, for example here.

    I've also heard undergrads in the UK asking each other whether they go gym, where my intuition is that gym functions as a noun (rather than as a converted intransitive verb).

    And of course there's go toilet/potty.

  20. Carrie said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    I was also struck by your doubtfulness that "lab" can be used without a determiner — as a neuroscience postdoc, I can assure you that it is used this way more often than not! I searched my personal e-mail and chat correspondence over the last five years and came up with a wealth of examples; here are excerpts from 46 different speakers (none of them me — I excluded all my own usages), on both coasts, in both academic and commercial labs.

    [(myl) Wonderful examples!

  21. Ken MacDougall said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 4:02 pm


    I got it the wrong way round. Ryder Cup hysteria.

  22. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    In BrE, sick people are "in hospital" and injured people are taken "to hospital", and you would say "I am going to visit Petunia in hospital"; being "in hospital" is a current state of existence (like being "in prison" or "at college" or "in church", irrespective of which church, university or jail).

    But you would also say something like "tomorrow I'll go to the supermarket, then to the hospital to see Petunia, and then to the cinema". In the last sentence, 'the' hospital is a specific building or complex in a specific location. ('The' supermarket and 'the' cinema, though, could be any old supermarket or cinema, just as in AmE 'the' hospital can be any hospital).

  23. Lazar said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    @M (was L): NBrEng dialects often subject the definite article to phonetic reduction, making it a non-syllabic plosive or fricative, but I haven't heard that they omit it.

  24. Chris said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    I dunno, myl, wrt your response to Breet, it seems to me that "have students come to lab prepared" is pretty close to the same referentiality as "he'd just say hey, come to set…".

    Does anyone see a difference in referentiality between the following minimal set:

    (a) "he'd just say hey, come to set, I want you to- to do something".
    (b) "he'd just say hey, come to lab, I want you to- to do something".
    (c) "he'd just say hey, come to college, I want you to- to do something".
    (e) "he'd just say hey, come to church, I want you to- to do something".

    I don't think any of (a-e) meet the same non-referentiality of (f-g):

    (f) She went to college in the 1970s.
    (g) He goes to church on Sundays.

    I think I see a grad student poster forming…

  25. M (was L) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    @ Andrew (NTSO) & Ken McDougall

    As a student, you go "to gym" for class, "to the gym" for a dance.

    But as an adult you go "to the gym" to work out, and not "to gym" for any reason.

    But also as an adult, you might go "to the gym" in order to go "to class" for, perhaps, pilates or yoga.

    Now suppose it's a dance class. Do you go "to dance" as a verb, or "to dance" meaning "to dance class?" Only a student goes "to the dance" (if they even have those anymore – actually they do, but in elementary school, usually in the gym.

    I don't see a pattern. The purpose of a gym is to hold class, to work out, and sometimes to hold a dance – these are just some of the things gyms are intended for. Which is the primary purpose? Much depends on where the gym is – in a school, a health club, or maybe someplace else.

    This ambiguity about what the "primary function" really is, isn't limited to gyms.

    The primary function of a hospital is, I trust, much the same in the US and UK. Americans go "to the hospital" for that function, Brits go "to hospital" for that function.

    Americans also go "into the hospital" although this generally suggests elective treatment, and is never used for outpatient care.

  26. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

    I've heard article-less [prep] set before, but in a completely different context. In water polo, while most positions get the article attached ("go to the wing", "get back to the flat"), the set position (or hole) goes sans article. "Get in set, back to set".

  27. Mr Punch said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

    A lot of folks seem to "graduate college" these days, with no "from."

  28. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    NBrEng people (well, Yorkshiremen) might say something that sounded very like "We're at bar", though that would be spelt out "We're at t' bar"; eg the Four Yorkshiremen of At Last The 1948 Show:
    "Eh, you were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in t' corridor!"

  29. Lazar said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

    @Mr Punch: I think that's a case of "graduate" developing a new transitive sense, which is a bit different – I've heard "graduate high school" as well.

    @Nicholas Waller: Lancastrians too.

  30. Rick Sprague said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

    I'm inclined to agree with those who see the difference as semantic, a distinction between the location or object itself and the primary or default activity associated with it:

    When the student came to school with a knife, the police were immediately sent to the school. If the police had been sent to school, wouldn't you wonder what they were expected to learn there?

    Where that hypothesis fails, though, is with BrE "in hospital". I've never really felt comfortable with that. Could it be that Brits feel they have a more active role in recuperation than Americans, so that being in hospital is something you do, not just someplace you are?

  31. John said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

    @Mr Punch & Lazar: Oh, dear! I was strictly taught that 'graduate high school/college' was the only correct phrase. Adding 'from' was considered excessive and wrong. This teaching occurred in parochial schools along the US East Coast in the 50s and 60s.

  32. MonkeyBoy said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

    I would like to point out that "home", "church", "set", etc. in these examples ARE proper nouns and as such don't take a determiner.

    The shift between common and proper is similar to a relation or role noun such as "mother" which can be used as the proper noun "Mother". This proper usage carries various in-group restriction on who can call any given mother "Mother".

  33. M (was L) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:31 pm

    @MonkeyBoy – Are you contending that it should be "go to Church" but "go to the church" and similarly "go to School" etc?

  34. M (was L) said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:57 am

    Re NoBrEng, I take your words on it, but perhaps it's an untuned American ear that hears the article reduced to absence. Or perhaps it's actors misrepresenting it slightly.

  35. Simon K said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:20 am

    Nobody's mentioned an example I've seen a lot recently in BrE, which is "in branch". See, for example, this page – – which uses the phrase "You'll also find our Personal Bankers in branch". Googling the phrase brings up plenty more examples, but almost entirely used by banks themselves – I've rarely if ever heard anyone use it outside of that context.

    I've only seen that in the last couple of years (and rarely enough that it grates whenever I do) but it mirrors a similar, and much more common phrase – "in store" – used in the same way by shops.

  36. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    We watched the opening episode of Call the Midwife on PBS last night and heard Jennifer Raines, in the little "backstage" snippet at the end, say "…when we were on set".

    Interesting series — obstetrical blood and suffering in a London East-End setting with a supporting cast of perky Anglican nuns who are worth the price of admission alone. Some linguistic interest in the dialect and rhyming slang (pen-and-ink = stink).

  37. Ron said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    My filmmaking days are long behind me, but we would work "on set" or "in studio" when we were on a sound stage or in a TV studio and not "on location". (However, "on stage" always meant a stage for theater, not film.)

    Perhaps nouns like "school", "church" and "set" partly reflect a state of mind (e.g., a high level of engagement or involvement) that transcends the physical environment. That might tend to explain "the church" as a building vs. "church" as a place of worship. Of course, this hypothesis does little to explain the British vs. American use of "hospital". Nor does it explain why we go to "the office" when we go "to work" (which I believe is not used as a verb here).

    @E: "In-camera" describes a (now unusual) type of effect, but would not be used as a direction to an actor. The actor would indeed be told to look "in camera" when the director wanted her to make eye contact with the lens. "Look at the camera" might be expected here but I only recall hearing that in the context of something like, "Look at the camera! It's about to fall over!"

  38. Edward Vanderpump said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    On "come to set", was it McEnroe who first used "come to net". His old doubles partner also says it.

  39. Maureen said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    No, it's more like "I'm in-game," same as "I'm online." It's a status report, not a location thing.

  40. M (was L) said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

    So reflecting on it some more:

    "to church" for worship

    "to the church" for non-worship

    "to St. Patrick's Church" for either??

    Catholics go "to church" and also "to mass" and "to confession." Does the priest also go "to mass" and "to confession" (in his role of hearing confessions, not when confessing himself))?

    A priest doesn't go "to altar" but plainly he's going there for its primary purpose.

    Just drilling down into this case.

  41. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    It clearly isn't the case that, quite generally, we use 'to X' when X is being used for its intended purpose – we don't, for instance, speak of going 'to shop' or 'to cinema'. It is just that, when 'to X' is used, this seems to connote more than movement to a place; the implication is that one is going there for a specific reason. This is compatible with the fact that it is a variable matter what words do take the 'to X' construction. As well as the BrE/AmE difference over 'to hospital', another example is that in older forms of British English people said 'to the University', although they said 'to school' and 'to college' – this distinction, however, has disappeared, and people regularly say 'to university' (or 'to uni').

    On the other hand, one form that does not seem to fit this pattern is 'to town'. When Yankee Doodle came to town, we don't know exactly what he came there to do.

  42. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    You can say "to town" but not "to city" and the same applies to lots of other phrases ("in town," "out of town," "left/skipped town," etc.).

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    Lawyers go to court. It would be a bit odd to talk of a judge (or member of a judge's staff) going to court, because he's generally there all day anyway. If it were worth remarking on (let's say the judge had to "go to the office" over the weekend due to some pressing matter), you might expect "to the courthouse" instead, which is parallel to some of the distinctions mentioned above. Although "the judge had to come into chambers over the weekend" sounds fine to me, but maybe that's because "chambers" is generally anarthrous perhaps because of being morphologically plural — "into the chambers" (as opposed to "his chambers" or "Judge Smith's chambers") just sounds wrong to me.

  44. M (was L) said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    So there may be some difference based, as well as "for a the primary purpose" also in the role an individual takes? A judge doesn't go "to court" nor does a teacher go "to school" nor does a priest go "to confession" when hearing confessions. They become, in a sense, part of the primary function of the place. They are, if you'll excuse the term, "staff." (A bailiff doesn't go "to court" either, neither does the housekeeping crew.)

    It is the "customer" (for lack of a term – the lawyer, the litigant, the student, the parishioner) who goes "to."

    I don't think this is universal, but it might be a signifier.

  45. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

    @Mr. Punch

    Regarding "graduate college," my daughter insists on using that version, which she learned in some English class in high school. I never was able to confirm if it was a preference of a particular teacher or a lesson in a textbook, but I think it was a textbook.

    That would have been about 14-18 years ago (so the books would have been that age and up to around eight years older). I think it would be fun to research some details of education by looking at textbooks over the years, but I don't happen to know of any comprehensive collections of public school textbooks used in the U.S. I'd be happy to hear of any that are out there.

  46. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 5:16 am

    Some people have the conviction that one should never use more words than are needed; for such people, once 'graduate college' becomes acceptable, it will immediately become required, since 'from' will then be a needless word. (I once heard of a teacher insisting that 'the cat needs to be washed' was incorrect, since 'the cat needs washed' says the same thing in fewer words.)

  47. Belial said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    The rather ugly expression "on travel" (meaning out of the office out of town) is kind of a subspecies of this.

  48. Antonio said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    I have recently heard a teenager say in response to a suggestion of watching a movie on TV: "No thanks, I've seen in theatres". I expect that "in theatres" as a replacement for "at the theatre" has become common following the form used in ads for new movies: "See it now! Only in theatres!".

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