Oh, come on

In a profile of the director Robert Wilson in the September 17 issue of the New Yorker, Hilton Als relates how Wilson studied as an undergraduate at the University of Texas in his native state. Als then writes:

“While at university, where he enrolled in business administration to please his father, he took a job as a kitchen aide at the Austin State Hospital for the Mentally Handicapped.”

The “at university” sets a news standard for conspicuous and gratuitous use of Britishisms (CAGUOBs), even for the New Yorker.

38 thoughts on “Oh, come on

    1. “While in college …” If the writer wanted to emphasize that he was at the University of Texas–which Als did not–he might say, “While at the university…” Never “at university.” We do not say that.

      1. I disagree Ben. As a Brit I do say “my daughter is “at university” or, “when I was at university”.

      2. Paul: precisely. Because you’re a Brit, you say “at university.” American usage includes the definite article.

      3. Matt, it’s not a double standard at all. While Wilson was at collage at the university, he was in the College of Business Administration, which is up the mall and to the left of the College of Social Sciences which I was once in, but I never went in there because the classes and department offices were all in other buildings. See, the units of the university are called colleges just like at Oxbridge, only completely not. Once you figure out this idiom, you can start to work on the reason universities run all the club sports, and then explain that to me.

    2. John: My comment had nothing to do with what a college is or isn’t. It was more the fact that an article is used with “university” but not with “college” when “college” is used to mean “university”. That is a double standard, and it’s got nothing to do with the meaning of the word “college”. You see, although college has several meanings, in this case it means the same as university since the suggestion is to replace “at university” with “in college”. So the meaning isn’t in question here; it’s the fact that an article’s expected to be used with university but not with college.

      1. But they aren’t really synonyms, Matt. When one says someone was at the university, some context is needed to provide a specific university. Saying, “in college” or even “at college” means they were taking classes that may be counted towards a bachelor’s degree; it could be anywhere, even in their basement on line these days. Saying, “she was in the college”, would make the listener look for context as to area of study, because almost all universities in the US combine there departments into things called colleges based on (some what) related material. There are some technical differences too, and some excellent schools are independent colleges that grant BAs

      1. “Uni” is in fact an Americanism but in a totally different context–a slang word for professional athletes’ uniforms. Never ever used here as short for university. To generalize for a minute, Americans never use the word “university” except in reference to a particular institution, and even then only formally and rarely. Otherwise the word is college, or, rather recently, “school,” as in “Where does he go to school?” “It’s a good school,” etc.

    1. Newcastle? That’s an Americanism right there! In England, “Newcastle” refers to the town.

      The beer (which isn’t widely popular and has a bit of a cheap & nasty image) is always called “Newcastle Brown” or sometimes “Newky Brown” for short.

  1. I live on the border between Vermont and Quebec and have many friends on both sides. I am conflicted…is it CAGUOB if, while chatting up (oops) a friend from Montreal, I refer to the fact that my son is at university in New York?

    1. That’s exactly what I mean by double standards. The meanings of hospital, college and university are all different, so why would it be “in the hospital”, “at the university” but “in college”? Do you see? College, while not meaning quite the same as university, is still closer than hospital. Either use an article for all of them or none of them.

      1. I intended humor in the comment. While I appreciate your desire for consistency, I know of no language that is consistent. That doesn’t mean that individuals cannot try to be consistent save in those cases in which the intended meaning would be obscured.

      2. I wasn’t aiming that reply directly at you; I understand you were joking. It’s more about others who have posted that because college and university have slightly different meanings, that “justifies” the use of an article with one but not the other, which is preposterous IMO.

      3. OK, gents, I am cutting off comments on this now. The points have been made. As GSW has pointed out, the issue is consistency (in use of definite article), not so much of double standards, and consistent is one thing language doesn’t tend to be.

  2. In or at, what struck me more than anything was that Americans still use the expression “handicapped”. That’s almost become the “n” word for the disabled over here.

    1. In my part of England, handicapped doesn’t seem offensive. Retarded is offensive up to a point (offensive against handicapped people if used to describe someone who’s just being an idiot), and spastic seems to be the most offensive, although it doesn’t bother me. As for the n word, that’s a bad comparison because they use it to describe themselves, but when we use it, that’s offensive. More double standards!

      1. When “they” use it? Really? That’s retarded, right there. In fact, it brings to mind the following re-definition of a familiar word.

        “Moran” is similar to “moron,” but carries a stronger connotation of stupidity due to laziness or misinformation that one hasn’t bothered to do the research on. It also avoids insulting people with developmental disabilities or mental handicaps, which “moron” does, by making the distinction between legitimate low intelligence and the sort of privileged apathy that drives most conservatives. “Moran” avoids attacking how unintelligent someone is and can’t help but be, and instead attacks how unintelligent they choose to be, in pursuit of hanging onto illogical or negligent or actively evil political views.

      2. I am going to take blogger’s prerogative and cut off this thread now. I will merely note that my mother wisely told me, many decades ago, to be very wary of people who, in referring to discriminated-against groups, start sentences with the word “they.”

  3. Sorry to go off topic but this question has been burning in my mind.

    Aren’t colleges and universities in the USA interchangeable? Both, from my perspective, appear to be establishments that follow on from High School.

    In the UK they are two very different things. A College (in the most common usage) is a Higher Education Establishment that follows on after Secondary School that does not offer Degrees (they instead offer A-Levels, Certification and NVQ Qualifications). A University is also Higher Education and offers Academic degrees (Bachelors), but can also teach Further Education (Masters and PhD).

    You can’t do a Masters without a Bachelor, you often can’t do a PhD without a Masters, and almost all available bachelors degrees require a College education (only the foundation courses can waiver the need for a College certificate).

    This is usually how we separate them – both physically and in speech.

    1. In the UK, Higher Education embraces both the study of higher academic qualifications, e.g. degrees, and vocational training, e.g. HNDs. Many secondary schools educate to a pre-university standard, e.g. A level or International Baccalaureate. Alternatively, from age 16 onwards, students move into Further Education to achieve these qualifications.

      Many universities offer undergraduate courses leading directly to the award of a master’s degree. Those already holding a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate subject may undertake a postgraduate course leading to master’s degree.

      Confusingly, numerous secondary schools (especially private), further and higher education establishments have “college” in their title, so context is invariably necessary to avoid confusion.

  4. I remember reading in a 1970s book of (British) English grammar for foreigners that you omit the article when you are at the establishment concerned for the purpose for which it is principally used. For instance, if you were in the church you could be fixing the lights, but if you were in church you would expect to be worshipping God (or in some cases hearing a feel-good talk, especially in America). If you were in the hospital you might be visiting a patient, but if you were in hospital you would be staying the night as a patient.

  5. I’ve been saying this since I WAS at university, so long ago. This stuff is fun, but totally anecdotal (and often wrong).

  6. Have I missed something? Surely by referring to “the” university it is referring to a specific university.
    On a different note – replying to J from London surely it should be “Newky Broon”

  7. I think I would be right in saying that the ‘at University’ in British English parlance comes about as a shortening of ‘up at University.’ My older and grander relations always referred to my being so.

    Similarly they would say they were ‘going up to town’ when they meant visiting London. This expression bearing no relation to there current geographic location. Thus, those living in the Northern home counties would still be ‘going up’ even when they were really going down.

  8. I think “Uni” is a recentish Britishism, but “at University” is the only Canadian term for this. Colleges are always “technical institutes/community colleges” in Canada. Any institution giving degrees is a University. “At college” is only now starting to be said here.

  9. I didn’t know there was so much animosity toward Americans saying “at university.” (I should point out that I’m a born-and-bred American who has never even visited Europe.) I started using this expression not to appear hip through the gratuitous use of “Britishisms,” but because the equivalent American expressions genuinely left me baffled and frustrated. Here’s how I saw it: Traditional schools of higher education over here are generally either called colleges or universities (with the latter made up of various colleges, but an undergrad at a university will take classes from various colleges while earning a degree). We talk about someone being “at college,” but I didn’t feel as if that phrase expressed that some student actually attend universities rather than colleges. Perhaps I was perceiving a greater difference between the two than was actually there. It *wasn’t* out of a perception that universities are superior to colleges (or vice versa), since I know that both prestigious and second-rate schools can follow either model. At any rate, I started saying instead, “When I was at the university…” That seemed awkward, but putting in the full name of the university in question was definitely worse. So I took a cue from British and Australian usage as I had heard it on TV, and dropped “the” from the phrase: “When I was at university…” This phrase is nicely parallel to the established American expression “at college.” I haven’t made any attempt, however, to switch to the apparently related expression “in hospital” (compared to the American “in the hospital”).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s