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What is the rule for omitting/including the definite article in the following sentences:

I used to play piano.
I used to play the piano.

I would pick the first sentence, but I've heard people say the second sentence even when they are not referring to a specific piano. Which one is correct?

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5 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

They're pretty much equivalent.

That said, omitting the article has a slight feeling of playing with a group or orchestra, wherein the instrument is a synecdoche referring to the position the person occupied within the group.

I used to play the flute.
I used to play flute in the Civic Orchestra.

Omitting the article also can carry the feeling of playing an instrument in the general sense.

I play woodwinds.

In this case it would sound strange to use the article because you are speaking of a class of instruments.

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I don't think I agree that "Anyone can play the guitar" sounds strange. –  Chris Dwyer Dec 11 '10 at 23:18
    
@Chris: Yeah, upon further review I don't either. Revising. –  Robusto Dec 11 '10 at 23:27
    
Such an amazing answer, Robusto! I never realized all this. Thanks a lot, you've taught me more with this one post than my English teacher did in 4 years. –  RiMMER Jun 27 '11 at 20:25
    
Interesting point about ommission of the article suggesting playing with others. It seems strongly suggestive if the instrument in focus is normally played with others in performance. For example, clarinet, where including the article may simply suggest spent time solo learning to play it. But with, say, guitar I think that nuance pretty much disappears. –  FumbleFingers Jul 6 '11 at 23:29
    
Whilst it's true that more people "can play the guitar" than "can play guitar", it would be a bit ott to suggest either usage is "strange". Looks like only about two-thirds of all players need a definite article identifying their particular instrument. –  FumbleFingers Jul 6 '11 at 23:46
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I remember when I first moved from the UK to the US, I was quite taken aback by the “I play piano” usage, without the article. So I’m pretty sure that this usage is very uncommon in the UK (at least among classical music circles). In US usage, Robusto’s answer, that the article-less usage is more common in reference to playing with a particular group, fits my experience (classical groups, north-east US) pretty well.

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Agreed - "I play the piano" is far more common in the UK than the version with no article. –  psmears Jun 29 '11 at 20:21
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If you use this NGram to check British/American usage, I think it's clear that UK usage increasingly drops the article for all instruments, but this tendency is stronger with more 'modern' guitar than 'traditional' piano. –  FumbleFingers Jul 6 '11 at 23:57
    
Yes - I play zampogna / hurdy-gurdy / crumhorn sound rather strange. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 '13 at 22:20
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Articles are creatures more of usage and discourse than of grammar. The human speech communities involved (UK vs US; musicians, cooks, scientists, etc.) have certain patterns and expectations for use in the domains they control. The surrounding text (conversation or writing) also guides usage.
As an American, I accept using or omitting the article before an instrument; they are nearly interchangeable for me. I like the idea above that the article-less usage stresses playing with a group and the article usage stresses the position within the group. As an ESL teacher, I have generally taught that omitting the article highlights the action or activity, almost as if practicing-violin were a single intransitive concept, like swimming. Using the article gives a subtle shift in focus to the instrument. The following is a sentence I would be likely to produce; I would accept any version of this (article-wise) that I might hear: "When he was little he played violin, but he switched to the cello when he got to middle school."

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+1 for a telling example sentence. I too would accept any [re-]distribution of the article. For reasons I'm not conciously aware of, I'd be slightly more expecting it to be spoken by someone with great interest in the process of playing if the article were swapped from your original version, where the original could be just from a proud but perhaps philistine parent. –  FumbleFingers Jul 6 '11 at 23:37
    
The 7 Google hits I found for "played crwth" all seem to be Scrabble- or role-play related. This is a strong argument for regional preferences. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 10 '13 at 9:58
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I heard somewhere that if the instrument is big and can hardly or even can't be carried (like cello, piano, drum set, harp, grand-piano, organ, etc.) the definite article is needed. I am not sure if that's correct, though.

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I'm not sure about needed, but perhaps more used. Those instruments you sit at, rather than hold, such is their stature. –  Orbling Dec 12 '10 at 1:13
    
They also tend to be caseless, but few grammarians would suggest a link. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 10 '13 at 10:47
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I play piano??

This is I understand an American usage and is unacceptable in British or Australian English.

I play strings I play drums

This is the usual option to omit the (indefinite) article - it means you play instruments in this category but doesn't mean you play all stringed instruments (or whatever), but that you play some (and the implication is a few). The drums is a bit of a special case plural representing a singular set of drums or a number of different percussion instruments. If you play a number of different percussion instruments in an orchestra you would normally play drums and other percussion instruments and refer to percussion. The drum set in a band (which also includes non-drum percussion components - big hat, cymbals, etc.) is actually a stand in for the whole percussion section in a full orchestra, so the "role" usage I suggest below prevails.

I play percussion I play woodwind I play brass These are actually an adjective with an implicit "instruments" omitted, so it looks like a mass noun and doesn't have plural -s, but otherwise acts like the "strings" case above.

I'm intrigued by the @brilliant idea that it has to do with being portable.

I think the indefinite usage has more to do with playing a particular role in an ensemble or orchestra where there are multiple instruments playing the X part (implicitly plural even if singular in form), rather than a unique role (so definite singular). Thus it is appropriate to say I play X (meaning the role and the part as well as the instrument). These is confirmed by it being easier to omit the article when the "in the orchestra" or similar is explicitly or implicitly present.

I can say

I play cello I play trombone I play guitar I play banjo

I can't say I play piano?? I play mandolin?? I play harp??

The mandolin isn't portable. There are not often multiple of any of these in a typical modern band, ensemble or orchestra. Piano and harp fit both theories.

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