Phrase of the day: in a home

The initial spark for this word of the day came from a discussion we had with a user of our coursebook series, Outcomes, about our (lack of) focus on articles (a, an, the – or nothing) before nouns. My first thought was that most of the time the correct use of articles has little or any impact on understanding (which is presumably how some languages exist quite happily without them at all!), but then over the last two days the phrase in a home came up again and I started wondering if there was any other use of the indefinite article that carries greater weight in English or brings such different meanings and connotations to a word? A home is usually an institution, a place where people who can’t live or stay in their own home are cared for. We talk about a children’s home, a boys’ home, a care home, an old people’s home, a nursing home, but very often we just state that someone is or was in a home.

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The use of the word home in these contexts essentially came about as a marketing exercise – as can be seen in this short history of American care homes. In the past, old people and children often found themselves in almshouses (alms = charity) or poorhouses or asylums which provided shelter for all kinds of people – the disabled, the poor, the insane and the orphaned. These institutions developed a very bad reputation for a lack of care to their residents, so as they became commercial businesses focused on particular groups, like the elderly, renaming themselves ‘homes’ in a bid to gain greater acceptance.

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Unfortunately, while the name may have changed, the reputation and reality have not always kept pace. Take, for example, the current news story about homes that relates to an inquiry which has been set up in the UK into allegations of historical child abuse. It’s starting its public hearings today and the first people who will be talking are people who grew up in children’s homes in Australia. They were kids who had lost their parents in the war and were sent to Australia to start a new life. Very sadly, this new life was often in homes run under very strict and abusive conditions, conditions that continued for many years for other children who followed them – despite warnings from government inspectors. In more recent times, there have also been scandals about mistreatment in other homes for disabled and old people, but even where care homes are of good quality, few people would wish to end up in a home. Being something you want to avoid isn’t really what you would normally associate with the word home, which is usually connected to comfort, safety, personal space and warmth! Think of the normal home idioms – make yourself at home; it’s good to be home; home at last; it’s not much, but it’s home; home is where the heart is.

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Of course, for many people, there’s no alternative to ending up in a home. What happens when the children move away from their hometown? Or if they live in a small flat with no room for sick parents? Or they can’t afford to give up work to look after parents or don’t have the nursing skills or can’t afford to pay a carer to stay with them? The modern world is not really set up for life to end in your own bed in your own home as most of us would like, so we have to create these strange new ‘homes’.

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If you detect a personal edge here, there is one as both my parents are in a home (due to a stroke and dementia). Their place is decent enough, and those who look after the residents are remarkable people who manage to maintain a level of good humour and respect whilst working in a tough environment. Because it is tough and it’s not home and even the adding of an indefinite article can’t hide that fact.

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*You might not want to discuss this issue in your classroom, but I kind of think we should all be more open about such things and try to look for better solutions. So, here are some questions and I promise to be more cheerful on another day!

  • Do you have a direct translation for ‘home’ in your language? Is it used for places like care homes? What idioms do you have about home?
  • Have you heard of any scandals around homes in your country?
  • What do you think is the best solution to providing good care in old age? How might more people be able to stay in their own homes or how could other facilities be improved?
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2 Responses

  1. Lev Rebrin says:

    Thanks. I’ve always wondered where this “a” in “home” came from. It turns out to be one of these politically correct expressions that people use in order to better hide their real thoughts.
    Going back to articles and their role, I have to say that I partially agree with your opinion that they don’t have as much impact on understanding as some other words do. I wouldn’t be so categorical though. They are part of a larger group of language devices used to maintain coherence in texts, to connect sentences.
    But to tell the trouth, it’s more than just the meaning that matters. Knowing a certain number of article patterns might actually be quite useful.
    For ex., this one, from your text
    the + adj
    the disabled
    the poor
    the insane
    the orphaned
    the elderly
    would definitely come in handy when talking about some social issues. And though most efl students know the rich / the poor, hardly anyone uses any other words form this set.
    I.e. social problems – the + adj.

    or the + nationality: the French, the Americans, the Russians, the Japanese etc.
    It is used to talk about war / conflict or stereotypes / cultural biases.

    Btw, “maintain a level of” is part of another set of expressions.
    A + noun + of + noun:
    a number of
    a series of
    a lot of
    a bit of
    a great deal of
    (a) lack of
    a group of
    a supply of etc.
    Of course this pattern is not sth fixed, it is dependent on surroudning language and context. So when our partner already knows this particular piece of information, instead of saying “a series of” we say “the series of”. But this plasticity doesn’t necessarily mean that an efl student won’t benefit from knowing this pattern.

    • AndrewWalkley says:

      Thanks for the comment. I actually don’t think of ‘a home’ being an example of political correctness. Political correctness to me is basically politeness – an effort to understand other people and not cause offence. This is more what might be called marketing or propaganda or doublespeak – an effort to obscure the true nature of something by using an alternative term – I’m thinking of ‘collateral damage’,’friendly fire’ or ‘downsizing’ to describe death and sacking. The discussion on articles is more a question for one of our grammar nonsense/curiosities posts. The short answer to what you say here is I agree with you and we do focus on this in material and lessons sometimes. However, I think generally these patterns are best pointed out by the teacher as they arise (perhaps on numerous occasions). There is sometimes also a difficulty in writing materials for such patterns in that there is nothing really to manipulate – they are what they are. But more on that on another day.

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