Why Do We ‘Drive Home’ but ‘Drive TO Work’?

A listener wondered why we use "to" in phrases like "drive to work" but not in phrases like "drive home."

Kate Whitcomb, Writing for
3-minute read
a woman driving to work or driving home
The Quick And Dirty

We use nouns (which can take "to") when talking about a specific place, but we use adverbs when we're talking about the general idea of a place or direction.

A friend on Twitter asked if we have ever done an episode on why you need the word “to” in phrases like “drive to work” but you don’t need it in phrases like “drive home.” He wrote, “I don’t know why the ‘to’ is in there, but it sounds odd not to include it or include it as the case may be.”

When we say, “I'm driving to the house,” “house” functions as a noun indicating a specific place. But when we say, “I'm driving home,” “home” functions as an adverb of place, similar to the adverb “homeward.” Compare “I'm driving to school” or “to the mall,” or “to my job” with “I'm driving well,” I’m driving carefully,” “I’m driving north…forward…up…there,” and so on.

The first set of examples are all place nouns (“school,” “the mall,” “my job”), while the second set are all adverbs of place or direction (“carefully,” “north,” and so on). 

This is also true of other transport verbs like “to go”: “I am going to school, “to the mall,” “to my job,” versus “I am going quickly,” “I am going forward,” and “I am going soon.” With “to go,” we can also attach an adverb of place instead of a noun: “I am going home,” “I am going north,” “I am going there.”

You’ll notice another little quirk related to transport verbs when you compare American English and British English. We’ve talked about this before, so you may remember that the British go to hospital, while Americans go to “the” hospital; the British go to university while Americans go to the university or a university. Both British and American speakers can either go to the school or just go to school. 

The difference here is whether you are talking about the general concept or idea of hospitals or schools, or about a specific hospital or school. In other words, you might say, “I go to school” in a general sense, meaning you haven’t graduated yet. Similarly, speakers of British English will say, “I need to go to hospital” to indicate that they require medical attention — if they say, “I’m going to the hospital,” that usually means they are visiting a specific hospital for a reason other than getting treatment — for example, to visit someone or take care of an administrative task. It’s kind of like the difference in American English between going to prison and going to the prison. 

And to finish up, the British “I went to university” is equivalent to an American saying “I went to college” — you aren’t talking about a specific college, but rather the general concept of receiving a higher education.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Kate Whitcomb, Writing for Grammar Girl

Kate Whitcomb is a linguist and teacher with degrees in psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience. You can find her at thelaymanslinguist.com.

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