I saw a sentence today:

Lily was speaking so excitedly and so fast about winning first prize in the Mark Six.

WHy is "first prize" without the definite article "the"?


I think it is because it is originally the title of the award, and not a description of it. You can also win 'honorable mention', not 'an honorable mention'. Then the question becomes "Why are these titles not capitalized?"

  • 2
    This is getting to it essentially, it's because "first prize" is a nominal group that's become fossilised and is often seen as a single unit, almost idiomatically. "The first prize" would imply that it was the prize that preceded all others, ever - like the first telephone call, or the first automobile. – jimsug May 1 '14 at 6:12
  • Worse yet, it could mean the prize given first at the event, which is usually the least prestigious... – Jon Jay Obermark May 1 '14 at 13:43

It is a general tendency of all languages to find ways of expression that are short, and this is true for English as well. In English a lot of things are dropped when they achieve not much any more and when the clearness does not suffer. So think about the difference between

  • She was happy about winning the first prize/first prize. Does the use of "the" give any important information and does the statement of the sentence suffer when you drop the article?

There are a lot of cases where English omits the definite article simply because it can be dropped without loss of clearness. Grammars try to show this tendency of English of dropping the definite article by enumerating cases where the definite article is generally dropped. But if a grammar tried to give all cases where such omissions are possible you would get a dictionary.

  • 2
    This is kind of true outside the U.S., but dropping articles is a lot less common in American English: we stay in the Hospital, go to a University, etc. Probably as an influence from waves of Spanish, German, and French speakers, who like their articles even more than we do. So for an American, the article is almost never dropped simply because it is unnecessary, but only because it is part of an established idiom. Doing so for mere economy makes you sound pretentious. – Jon Jay Obermark May 1 '14 at 13:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.