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I am not a native speaker.

Could you please explain to me why we use the definite article in the following question:

What is the time?

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Note: at least in America people would ask "What time is it?" –  Robusto Aug 28 '12 at 21:58
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What's the time is a very common way of asking for time in New Zealand. –  deutschZuid Aug 28 '12 at 21:59
    
@JamesJiao, I am not sure about New Zeland :) I just opened my Grammar book. –  user471011 Aug 28 '12 at 22:02
    
@Robusto: not always—I've heard "Excuse me; do you have the time?" –  Peter Shor Feb 14 at 15:10
    
@PeterShor: Point taken. But OP uses a "what" construction, and I probably just assumed that limited the question's scope. Certainly I think your way is the form Americans would normally use to ask the time of a stranger. –  Robusto Feb 14 at 15:20
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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The article "the" indicates that you are referring to a specific instance. So you say, "What is the time?" if you are asking for a specific time. Usually that would mean the time right now, though in context it could mean the time of some event under discussion. (Like, "We're planning a meeting to discuss this. The date of the meeting will be August 12." "Okay. And what is the time?")

Without an article, you would be referring to time in general. If you asked, "What is time?", you would be likely get a philosophical discussion on the nature of time. (Like, "What is time?" "Time is what keeps everything from happenning all at once.")

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Compare "Do you have time?" with "Do you have the time?". The former asks for any time. The latter asks for one specific time. –  David Schwartz Aug 28 '12 at 23:33
    
@David Schwartz: I am unconvinced by that example. With or without the article, it could apply to having time right now, or some free time in the future. And that future time could be in one contiguous block, or multiple episodes. The article maks no difference. –  FumbleFingers Aug 29 '12 at 0:51
    
@FumbleFingers: I agree that in an unusual case, either one could have either meaning. However, absent context that forces an unusual interpretation, one means one thing and one the other. –  David Schwartz Aug 29 '12 at 1:27
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In your example, we use the because you're referring to the concrete time - the current time. You would use an indefinite article when speaking about an undefined time, like:

Was there ever a time when a man could walk these streets without having to watch his back?

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What is time? would be a philisophical question, to which the answer would be something like A construct of human thinking which creates a framework within which events can be placed. The question to which the answer may be Five past seven asks for the identifier (analogous to the name) of the (present) time.

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