EN: play (the) + instrument

french teacher

Member
French (France)
Hi,

Is the expression "play guitar" or "play drums" more common in US English than "play the guitar" or "play the drums" (British English) or does it have a different meaning? Heard it last night in "Desperate Housewives" ;) !
 
  • Chris' Spokesperson

    Senior Member
    English - Ireland
    In common usage they are completely interchangeable even in British English, though you are right that the definite article prevails in the UK.

    No different meaning.
     

    chamby

    Member
    French
    Hello everybody !
    Is there any circimstances in which one can say "play violin" instead of "play THE violin" as I was taught? Or is it incorrect?
    Merci !
     

    WordRef1

    Senior Member
    English - America
    "They play violin in the orchestra." hmm I think that's wrong. It's one of those things that might be wrong, but in common speech I probably wouldn't notice it.
    To say, "I play violin" sounds like I'm saying that the name of the song that I play is violin. I think that's why we tend to use the. There are various things like that which most English speakers actually get wrong; so... I am not certain.
     

    breagadoir

    Senior Member
    English - Ireland & U.K.
    Playing a musical instrument always needs the definite article 'THE' as far as I am aware. To play the guitar; to play the trumpet; to play the fiddle; to play the harp etc.
     

    geostan

    Senior Member
    English Canada
    I just happened to watch a movie (1951) in which Doris Day says: "Anyone here play piano?" So it is possible, but I think as was stated, it is rare. It's best to keep the article.
     
    In my personal experience, I hear both versions just as frequently, though I would say - as previously stated - that to avoid any loss of marks in tests and other formal assessments, one should always use "play + the + instrument". Also, you should stick to strict grammar when doing written pieces of work. Otherwise, trust that only those most formally and rigorously trained in English grammar will be bothered by this omission of the definite article.
     

    b1947420

    Senior Member
    British English
    I agree that you need to use an article but it doesn't have to be the definite article.
    It would be acceptable to use an indefinite.
    To play a violin (etc) generalises rather than the violin (etc) which particularises.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    When speaking generally I think you need the definite article but once you have a context set up that is being talked about I don't think it's necessary, like if you were talking about an orchestra and someone said "I play for the WordReference Philharmonic Orchestra" if someone asked this person what they do (play) they could say "I play violin".

    "Ahh you're in a band, what do you play?"
    "I play guitar and Peter sings"..

    When talking generally (as in the habit of playing) I'd say it needs the definite article (Hello my name is Alex and I play the guitar), but it's no big deal if some people omit it.
     

    dicomec

    Senior Member
    USA
    I think it's quite acceptable to omit the article in certain circumstances: I play violin in our school orchestra. I play in our orchestra. What instrument do you play? I play trombone.
    Do you play clarinet or sax? I play both. But you can't really go wrong with 'the'.
     

    b1947420

    Senior Member
    British English
    Here are the results of some research using "violin" as an example.
    It is clear that useage favours the article "the". :)

    Play violin

    NIL BNC

    11 COCA


    Play the violin

    10 BNC

    93 COCA


    Play a violin

    NIL BNC

    7 COCA

    BNC British national corpus
    COCA Corpus of contemporary American English
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Although a corpus search does have its benefits I think when you can use a different option in a different circumstance then just searching for word combinations isn't always that reliable.

    For example if the more general texts in there have "I play + the...." but others with a context surrounding it (like in my examples and dicomec's, where the orchestra is mentioned) then a result of combinations won't show that fact and maybe suggest that native speakers might subconsciously differ in what they use, depending on whether that instrument is part of something.

    For example; I play the violin in an orchestra, I'm sure to some that might seem like there is only one violin instead of a whole section, I suppose that depends on the way the definite article is stressed as well.
     

    wildan1

    Moderando ma non troppo (French-English, CC Mod)
    English - USA
    No, it's natural in American English, too, to say I play guitar.
    But maybe more to be specific about a particular piece or performance:

    In this number, Joe plays banjo and I play guitar.
     

    Maître Capello

    Mod et ratures
    French – Switzerland
    I should have been more explicit. My comment was specifically about a "general statement" as suggested by Sam in his post. For example:

    "What are your hobbies?"
    "I play (the) guitar."


    In that case, I was taught always to use the article.

    In that particular case of a general statement, would you also spontaneously omit the article?
     

    Wordy McWordface

    Senior Member
    SSBE (Standard Southern British English)
    I should have been more explicit. My comment was specifically about a "general statement" as suggested by Sam in his post. For example:

    "What are your hobbies?"
    "I play (the) guitar."


    In that case, I was taught always to use the article.

    In that particular case of a general statement, would you also spontaneously omit the article?
    Here's an example of the general statement "He plays guitar" from the movie The Princess Diaries:

    He fixes the cable?

    Does it sound weird?
    No, not at all. It sounds quite natural in AmE.

    Would I omit the article?
    Probably not. But it wouldn't sound strange if I did, even in BrE.
     
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    ForeverHis

    Senior Member
    American English
    In response to Maître C's question: I would usually omit the article. If someone asked me what my hobbies are, I'd say "I play piano... " It would be fine with the article too, but we Americans love to condense things! I think I would only use the article if I were talking about a specific piano. "I like to play the piano at church."
     
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    Maître Capello

    Mod et ratures
    French – Switzerland
    Thanks all for your inputs! Based on the various replies here and also in various other threads in EO (see a few of them listed below), it seems like it is quite common and natural to omit the article in AmE, but much less so in BrE. Also, when talking about a position, role or part in a band or orchestra, or when talking about a specific type of instrument (e.g., bass guitar instead of just guitar), it is common to omit the article in most varieties of English.

    Play guitar, or play the guitar (piano, violin, trombone, etc)? (already linked above by OLN)
    play guitar vs. play the guitar
    Play a song on <the> guitar
    play <the> violin
    Thomas plays (the) bass guitar
     
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