In English, singular institutional nouns like church or hospital are variably used with or without a definite article following verb-preposition collocations like go to and be at. British English has been reported to prefer the bare NP use whereas American English allegedly tends towards the variant with the definite article. Corpus data from the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English are used to test this hypothesis. In addition to regional variation, language-internal factors (choice and form of head noun, modification, semantics of the construction, collocational effects) are investigated. A variable rule analysis shows that regional variation is, in fact, not the most important factor and that choice of head noun and modification play a more important part. The results confirm that grammar often has a strong lexical base. Theoretical background to the study is provided by construction grammar, on the one hand, and previous work on category gradience.