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I'm having a debate with a friend who teaches music. In English we say learn music or learn programming but when it comes to guitar, I feel tempted to say learn the guitar instead of learn guitar. Is there a difference between a good way to learn the guitar and a a good way to learn guitar and if so which is better?

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Phil Sweet, Dan Bron, ab2, snailcar Jun 27 '16 at 5:10

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  • This is an example of the definite generic, which refers to the prototype of the object being discussed. In this case, when we say the guitar what we actually mean is "the concept of the instrument known as guitar". To answer your question, either is fine and the second is basically just the first with the definite generic article elided because it can be inferred from context. (I didn't post this as an answer because I can't find any concrete sources to back me up) – John Clifford Jun 20 '16 at 8:40
  • Either is perfectly acceptable. – Hot Licks Jun 20 '16 at 12:29

Lynne Murphy has written about this in her blog "Separated by a common language".

Her answer is, It's complicated. British usage is different from American, and the patterns vary depending on the instrument. On 'guitar', she says:

Ziggy played guitar. Maybe the Spiders from Mars made him do it without the the, but in 1990s UK, the British were following suit and, like 2010s Americans, using play guitar twice as much as play the guitar.

  1. One can learn the guitar, i.e. learn about the guitar, without learning to play the guitar.

  2. Similarly, one can learn about computers, without learning about programming computers.

  3. You could learn to play the guitar, by generalizing all the various types of guitars into a single perspective.

  4. Alternatively, one could learn to play guitars, with the knowledge that there are more than one type of guitars, and specific skills associated with each type of guitars that need to be learned.

  5. You normally say, "I like driving cars", rather than saying "I like driving car".

  6. You also don't say, "the stone hit ground". Rather you would say, "the stone hit the ground".

There are various means and ways to construct or imply a collective noun.

  1. Non-discrete nouns and mass nouns, which are self-generalizing: furniture, equipment, soil, ground, water.

    Such that to reference a specific instance of furniture, specific equipment, specific area of soil or specific spot of ground, you would have to employ the definite article, an indicative adjective or a possessive adjective:

    • We need more furniture. The furniture is inadequate. This furniture is inappropriate.
    • We need new equipment. Our equipment is failing. The equipment us failing. This equipment will not last three months.
    • We need suitable soil. The soil we have is to peaty. This soil in particular is too clayey. Our soil is terrible for growing vegetables.
    • Water is the fluid of life. Our water is too chlorous. The water in the this town tastes horrid. This water is unsuitable for drinking.
  2. Discrete nouns, which are therefore not self-generalizing. There are two ways to generalize discrete nouns: using a generalizing article; using the plural.

    • An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
    • Apples are getting too expensive.
    • A human a day keeps the vampire at bay.
    • Humans are the vampire's favourite source of nutrition.
    • A guitar a day is what I sell these days.
    • Guitars are no longer as popular as they used to be.
    • Only lactating cows provide milk.
    • A cow needs to birth a calf once every few years to persist as a lactating cow.
  3. Discrete nouns masqueraded as non-discrete nouns. By applying the definite article, giving the impression that the discrete noun is a mass noun.

    • The apple is a delicious and nutritious fruit.
    • The human is the most intelligent animal on the planet. Some people say the vampire is more intelligent than the human. But the vampire is not an animal, are they? They are a myth - the myth of vampires.
    • The guitar is a difficult instrument to play. The piano is much easier to learn than than the guitar, to play.
  4. Discrete nouns that some people think are mass nouns, because the singular and plural are the the same.

    • fish
    • deer
    • Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
  5. Use of gerunds and verbal nouns. Gerunds are nouns of actions from verbs. Verbal nouns are nouns of objects from verbs. Gerund ending in -ings?

    • Eating junk food is a favourite past time of computer gamers.
    • Turkey roast drippings are my favourite Thanksgiving gravy.
    • Computer programming is a valuable and highly marketable skill.
    • Playing the guitar is much more difficult than playing the piano, AFAIAC.
    • Playing with guitars is not playing the guitar! - my guitar teacher yelled at me.

    You could then apply the definite article, a possessive adjective or an indicative adjective for the intended effects

    • His eating junk food relates to his being a computer gamer.
    • The dripping from the turkey roast is my favourite Thanksgiving gravy.
    • This turkey roast dripping has been by far the best in all the years.
    • Your skills in computer programming is not applicable to programming the processes in the distillation stack of an oil refinery.
    • That way of playing the guitar is new to me.
    • This playing the guitar all night next door is annoying me.
  • 1
    "Learn the guitar" means "learn to play the guitar". This is quite unambiguous. I'm not sure where you copied the above from, but it's not a credible source. – Hot Licks Jun 20 '16 at 12:33
  • Don't you agree with the logic that "One can learn the guitar, i.e. learn about the guitar, without learning to play the guitar." ? Or are you simply trigger-happy? – Blessed Geek Jun 20 '16 at 12:45
  • You mean, does the sight of a trigger make make me happy? Not if someone else is holding the gun. In idiomatic English "learn the guitar" means "learn to play the guitar". It's unambiguous. – Hot Licks Jun 20 '16 at 13:04
  • One can learn about programming without learning to program, but learning programming means learning to program. One can learn about English without learning to speak or read the language, but if one learns English, one learns to speak (or at least read) it. You need to learn the difference between learning about something and learning that something. – Peter Shor Aug 1 '16 at 17:01

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