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I was discussing English with a foreign student that told me that they had to use the after the word play every time.

As a native speaker I like playing piano, I like playing guitar sounds natural to me as does I like playing games.

Although the last example doesn't sound correct without being plural I like playing game, the first two examples sounds OK to me.

Other examples that come to mind:

  • He had always wanted to play Othello
  • He had always wanted to play piano

Speaking is different than writing so I normally wouldn't notice if these are grammatically correct if those were spoken without using the. They sound right to me, are those examples grammatically incorrect?

  • Employment of the definite article in these and related circumstances can vary across the English diaspora. In Britain we would normally say I like playing the piano/violin etc. However if we were talking about orchestra parts we might say I prefer playing violin to playing oboe. I would think the "rules" (if you can call them that) for when one uses the article are broadly similar in the USA, though my impression is that they are more inclined to drop the article than we are in Britain. – WS2 Sep 14 '16 at 9:28
  • His "rule" is wrong. In some cases it's purely up to the writer/speaker, in others there's an idiomatic preference, but rarely is it a strong one. – Hot Licks Sep 14 '16 at 11:42
  • Note that the usages in 'play soccer', 'play the fish', 'play an ace', 'play the ball', 'play a backhand', 'play [the] piano', 'play Othello', 'play the English', 'play Broadway', 'play Ronaldo', 'play the races', 'play the fool', 'play a joke', 'play the matter', 'play hookey/truant' ... all need to be considered separately. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 14 '16 at 18:17
  • I think it's more to do with the noun than the verb. Other verbs seem to work just like play: I study/like/hated/tried piano are all OK with or without the; study/like/hated/tried the song all require the; study/like/hated/tried football all work only without the. – Jason Orendorff Sep 14 '16 at 19:52
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That isn't a rule:

Google NGram for play_VERB _NOUN_,play_VERB *,play_VERB the

In fact, you CAN'T say "I like to play the soccer", as Purdue OWL says:

Some common types of nouns that don't take an article are:

  • Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian (unless you are referring to the population of the nation: "The Spanish are known for their warm hospitality.")
  • Names of sports: volleyball, hockey, baseball
  • Names of academic subjects: mathematics, biology, history, computer science

You would not use "the" in front of a number of other games, including Othello, Connect 4, Pokémon, Chinese Checkers, etc.


Other times, like with piano, either with or without "the" is fine. Neither is much more common than the other, actually:


You DO need an article in "I like playing game"; depending on the context it may be "the" or it may be "a" or it may be something else.

  • Holy smokes, where'd you get that amazing graph & data? – Tek Sep 14 '16 at 17:43
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    @Tek Google NGram. I added a link to it. – Laurel Sep 14 '16 at 17:47

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