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SimCity, for example, casts youth in the role of mayor.

I'm not sure if I understand the usage of zero article correctly. There is no article before 'mayor' as this is the instance where we refer to something that is already unique. Is that so?

(for anyone who's interested, the context is in the middle of page 6 here)

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The significant "zero article" here is the one missing before youth. Which IMHO makes this sentence an example of something akin to "journalese" (only worse). It's nothing to do with mayor being "unique". We wouldn't expect an article before mayor here. The quirkiness stems from the fact that ordinarily we'd expect one before youth. –  FumbleFingers Jan 15 '12 at 22:30
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@FumbleFingers: I thought youth could be used with or without the article. The sentence does not sound weird to me... But, again, I'm not a native speaker. –  nico Jan 15 '12 at 22:35
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@nico: OP's sentence can be interpreted as a valid construction from a competent speaker, but it's quite a florid/poetic usage. To do this we have to first read "youth" as meaning young people in general, then re-interpret that to mean a single instance thereof, since we can only have one mayor. I've just found and checked the original document, and clearly we then have to recast that single instance of "a youth" to be the SimCity player (presumed to be a young person). It's overblown use of language, IMHO. –  FumbleFingers Jan 15 '12 at 22:58
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...in order to convert OP's sentence into more "everyday" language, I would replace casts youth with something like puts the (typically young) player. But looking at a few more paragraphs from that document, I have to say that anyone who can read it fluently should never need to be asking for help with any aspect of English usage. It really is somewhat turgid, to say the least. –  FumbleFingers Jan 15 '12 at 23:39
    
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Here, "the role of" indicates a type of or metaphorical position, not a specific job or rank. If we had "the mayor," my natural question would be: "mayor of what?" Since we are not referring to a particular office or title, "the" may be dropped.

For example,

She was treasurer of the committee.

indicates that she served in a capacity that may be commonly called "treasurer." This role may or may not be formally recognized, however. The sentence doesn't indicate whether her service as treasurer is an office, or if she has a title. On the other hand,

She was the treasurer of the committee.

suggests that the committee did designate an individual to serve as its financial administrator. Of course, if "Treasurer" is a formal title, then I would not say the presence or absence of the article changes the meaning in the same way, but that's a different matter.

For another example, consider the idiom

Who made him judge, jury, and executioner?

This does not imply that someone was literally appointed Judge of the District Court, then tapped to serve as the sole juror for docket #1152, then hired to execute the convict. These are metaphorical roles, and the question is a rhetorical one, to wit: why is he allowed make and execute all decisions without considering others' input, as if this were a kangaroo court where he controls every part of the process?

Who made him the judge, the jury, and the executioner?

in contrast does ask the literal question. It implies that in this case, there is to a judge, a jury, and an executioner, and somehow he was made all three.

To come back to the original example,

SimCity, for example, casts youth in the role of mayor.

is suitable because we are talking about some kind of municipal chief executive, not a specific office. After all, a SimCity mayor's powers vastly exceed any real-life mayor :).

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The entire report is one of a series that "present findings from current research on how young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life."

The chapter in which the sentence in question occurs is using youth in the sense of "young people considered as a group."

The entire premise of the chapter is that "gaming may foster civic engagement among youth" -- in other words, playing video games may get young people as a group to engage in civics, that is, actually get them interested in being involved citizens.

To support this contention, the report points out that "many games have content that is explicitly civic and political in nature. SimCity, for example, casts [young people] in the role of mayor and requires that players develop and manage a city."

In other words, instead of having your stereotypical elderly politician as mayor, SimCity puts youth in that role.

The sentence makes perfect sense in its context.

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I'd agree that it's perfectly grammatical in its context, but whether it makes sense to talk about 'youth in the role of mayor' when your data consists of some people playing computer games raises larger issues. Not least, if SimCity casts youth as mayor, am I no longer allowed to play it? –  TimLymington Jan 16 '12 at 11:41
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The report "draws from the 2008 Pew Teens, Video Games, and Civics Survey," so its focus (and the focus of the entire series of reports) is entirely on youth. Other age groups are entirely irrelevant to their subject. A viable democracy depends on on an informed, involved citizenry, and anything that helps promote that is a good thing. –  Gnawme Jan 16 '12 at 17:33
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