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When someone asks "Do you have the time?", my first instinctive response is: "The time for what?"
I have to think for a few more seconds to realize that the question was actually "What time is it?"

I find this baffling, because I'm otherwise fluent in English; for some reason, though, I always find this question instinctively jarring and confusing.

I was wondering if someone could point me to information that might help me understand this phenomenon better, and/or help me figure out how to train myself to parse these sentences correctly the first time. Some questions on my mind are: is there a name for this kind of "mis-parsing" of such a sentence? Are there known similar examples? Is my reaction normal from a linguistic/grammatical standpoint (e.g. is the intended meaning completely grammatically correct)? Is this confusion common among learners? How about among native speakers?

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I don't think the problem is parsing. I'd guess that you understand that this is an interrogative statement with the third person singular subject, with the auxiliary do coming before the subject, followed by a present tense and active voice verb, then a direct object, and so on.

What you're not used to is idiom. The first consideration is the association of have and know. We say

I have an idea. (I know something.)
I have the answer. (I know the solution.)

The second consideration is the [ellipsis], i.e., the words left out:

Do you have the time [on the clock]?
Do you have the time [of day]?

The third consideration is that the time serves double idiomatic duty as a moment of time (as in the examples above) and as an indeterminate interval of time as in the examples below:

Do you have the time to help me?
In the time it took you to complain about the task, you could have completed it.

This means that the request for "the time" automatically has two idiomatic meanings, and native speakers will use the context to determine which to use. They may be serious and choose the moment meaning:

Q: Do you have the time?
A: Sure, it's 4:56 PM.

or they may be facetious and pretend to choose the interval meaning:

Q: Do you have the time?
A: Sure, if you have the inclination.

As the second, jokey example shows, your awareness of the two grammatical usages is perfectly normal. Matching the right usage to the right situation is a matter of practice.

  • The reason "the" is used in "Do you have the time to help me?" is time is restricted by to infinitive. In the time it took..., "the" is used because it is also restricted by a relative clasue. I don't think it is indeterminate interval in "In the time it took you...." because "the" time spent in complaining can be approximated. Many people say Do you have some time/time without the to help me?" I don't think it is that idiomatic. – user140086 Oct 3 '15 at 9:48
  • In the last example, "Do you have the time?", the purpose of the time (to be spent) is extremely easy to guess in the situation. That's why you have to use "the" as it is not an abstract noun any more. – user140086 Oct 3 '15 at 9:54
  • As to your first comment, I'm afraid I'm having trouble following. The reason for the use of the definite article in "the time to help me" can't be because of the following infinitive because "Do you have time to help me" is fine. "In time it took" is not acceptable, but again, I don't think the presence of a following relative clause is the reason. "It was time that heals all wounds" is fine without the article. Whether the interval may be approximated is immaterial: it's indeterminate until you say, "Do you have ten minutes to help me?" I don't know why that's relevant here. – deadrat Oct 3 '15 at 18:13
  • For the first comment, that's why you cannot say it is idiomatic. Usin "the" is just optional in "Do you have time/the time to do whatever". You said it is an idiomatic usage and I just wanted to prove it is not. Do you think approximating time to "heal all woulds" is as easy as approximating the time someone spent in complaining in the past? I think your confusion comes form there. You can never approximate time to heal all woulds. That's why time was used as an abstract noun. It is very subjective, but there is a line to distinguish. If you are washing dishes, how long will it take? 5 hours? – user140086 Oct 3 '15 at 18:23
  • As to you second comment, perhaps you should say that it's extremely easy for you to guess. That is apparently not the experience of the OP, and native speakers don't guess at all. Your discussion of the types of nouns confuses me. Time is always an abstract noun because time isn't concrete: it can't be touched no matter how the word time is treated grammatically. Time is always a common noun because it isn't the personal name of anything. Chronos, the Greek god of time, is a proper noun. – deadrat Oct 3 '15 at 18:28

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