Why do we say

  • get hold of
  • lose sight of

instead of

  • get the hold of
  • lose the sight of

The missing article has always bugged me.

  • I don't understand why you think there's a "missing" article. Would you say the same about take [the?] charge of, or get [the??!] rid of? Jul 1 '14 at 20:28
  • 1
    I guess that part of the issue is that your native language arbitrarily conditions you to what is the "default" expected use of articles. To a French speaker, it can seem that English is "missing" the articles in many cases expressing generality, whereas to an English native, it can seem that French unnecessarily includes the article. To a native French speaker, it is completely logical to say "prendre l'apéritif" (def. article), whereas to an English speaker, the logical thing to have is "an" aperitif... Jul 1 '14 at 22:21

There are different ways of approaching this:

  • on the one hand, English has evolved so that the notion of a "concept in general" is generally expressed without an article;
  • but irrespectively of that, set expressions can have arbitrary use of articles (or indeed basically any other part of the expression).

In the second of your expressions at least, it appears to fit with general usage (i.e. point 1). For example, one would say:

Sight is just as important as hearing.

and not:

*The sight is just as important as the hearing.

  • I don't know if there's anything more to it than "established idiomatic preference", but one could always contrast "Don't lose sight of him!" with "I can't stand the sight of him!". Jul 1 '14 at 21:32
  • As well as simply arbitrary idiomatic habit as you say, isn't part of the difference that in "I can't stand the sight of him", the presence of the article suggests that it is specifically "the sight belonging to him" that you can't stand? Jul 1 '14 at 22:18
  • I can't see that. If forced to contrive an interpretation for "I can't stand his sight!" I'd have to suppose that there was something wrong with his eyesight, and I was fed up with either the way he kept banging on about it, or the way he kept banging into me because he didn't see me. Jul 1 '14 at 22:27
  • I suspect that this is a "picture-of" construction, which precludes the possessive construction as such, but a conditioning factor is nonetheless that it is not a generality but rather attributable to a specific individual. (Obviously this is a broad off-top-of-head a posteriori observation-- I haven't come up with anything close to a strict theory or distinguishing criteria...!) Jul 1 '14 at 22:38
  • Yeah, I agree it's a "picture-of" (by which I assume you mean the distinction between picture depicting him and picture belonging to him). But it seems to me the sight of him you're being told not to lose, and the one you can't stand, are both of that type. So I still don't see how that relates to the fact that only one of them gets the article. Jul 1 '14 at 22:43

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