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Omission of definite article with musical instruments

Is there any difference between the following sentences?

Can you play the guitar?
Can you play guitar?

  • 1
    There is no difference! – Fattie Jul 6 '11 at 22:18
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    @Joe Blow, if you make that a bit more structured and organised (explaining it better, with examples and links maybe), you could post it as an answer. :) – Alenanno Jul 6 '11 at 22:20
  • @Joe Blow - Speaking as someone who has played classical guitar as a soloist and rock guitar in bands, I can tell you that that is an unjustifiable generalisation. What is missing here is context. French Boy - there are differences. Which is used depends on circumstances. Who is saying it to whom and when. Please give us the context of these questions. – chasly - supports Monica Oct 4 '15 at 17:33
  • chas dude - all you're saying is there's a fine sense or usage distinction between the two forms. (the second one is rather like, amongst guitarists, asking "dude can you play bass" or "dude can you play slide", whereas, the first one is more like a general question amongst people who may or may not have any involvement with music.) the fact is though (a) you could use either form in either case, right? and (b) nobody cares about fine distinctions, it's just an ESL question (and should be on that site) – Fattie Oct 4 '15 at 23:53

As mentioned in the other question mentioned above, omitting the article usually implies "play the __ part", e.g. in an orchestra, chamber group etc -- in other words it focusses on the actual music-making. Including the article refers more to the physical action/ability of playing.

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  • Not in my experience. Do you have examples? – Goodbye Stack Exchange Jul 6 '11 at 23:34
  • As a musician, I agree with this answer. Maybe it could be worded more clearly. Here is my (very similar) version. "Can you play the guitar?" could be a conversational gambit, rather like "Can you ride a bike?" In contrast there might be a scenario at a dance-band concert. The guitarist has failed to turn up and someone is needed to play that instrument. The band-leader might phone a stand-in and say, "John, can you play guitar tonight? Bill hasn't turned up." He wouldn't say 'the guitar' in that request because that would indicate John and Bill shared a guitar. – chasly - supports Monica Oct 4 '15 at 17:25
  • P.S. Whilst, as I say, I agree with this answer, it is actually more complicated. There are many contexts that would make one or other of the phrases more apt. There are also circumstances where they are equivalent. – chasly - supports Monica Oct 4 '15 at 17:30
  • with bike, note that very similarly you can indeed say "can you ride downhill" or "can you ride paceline", which is an "insider" (let's say) question. but this i all wrong - it's just an ESL question and should be moved here (answer, "they're identical") – Fattie Oct 4 '15 at 23:56
  • note that in your example the band-leader could, in facy, say "can you play the guitar tonight dude". and conversely, in a general conversation, one could say "can you play guitar?" the OP is just asking in simple grammatical terms if they're the same. – Fattie Oct 4 '15 at 23:57

Usually (I think), when there is a determiner the before a noun, we're talking about a specific thing referring to the noun (in this case a guitar). But this is a phraseological analysis and I don't think it's the case for this sentence … maybe there's no difference at all … anyway, it depends on the context.

P.S. Sorry for my English not really perfect ;)

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