I've done my small research on StackExchange and (I think) I realised a subtle difference between:

  1. playing THE guitar (usually means playing for yourself, on leisure)


  1. playing guitar (usually implies being a part of a band or orchestra)

I also know that it is wrong to say "playing A guitar". But why? How does it feel/sound to an English speaker? Thank you.

  • 5
    Personally, I can't see anything wrong with "playing a guitar": take the sentence "Goodness me, why are you playing a guitar?" or "Do I look cool playing a guitar?". – Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 Oct 24 '19 at 19:25

"Playing a guitar" means playing a single unspecified guitar. So it would be ok to say "Yesterday at the bar, I drank a beer and played a guitar" to suggest that you found a specific guitar there to play. But it would be a bit odd to say "In my spare time, I play a guitar", as that again suggests that there is one guitar that you play. It would be similar to saying "In my spare time, I play my guitar" but vaguer for no clear reason.

The definite article, meanwhile, is used not just to reference a specific instance but to generalise an entire class. So "I play the guitar" essentially means I play any guitar.

  • 1
    did I undestand you correctly, that "the" (which usually means a certain item) and "a" (which used to convey an unspecific reference to a class) in case of playing the musical instrument is totally vice-versa? – Hiwi9012 Oct 24 '19 at 20:41
  • 1
    No, not because they're musical instruments. Because that's how play works with musical instrument objects. Note that present tense action verbs are normally generic, and refer to repeated or customary actions, not to actual events. "Playing the guitar" is a skill, while "playing a guitar" is an action. "Playing guitar" may mean either, or it can refer to filling a slot in a band or orchestra. And you shouldn't be surprised that definite and indefinite articles aren't always definite or indefinite. There aren't any general rules for articles; they're all idiomatic. – John Lawler Oct 24 '19 at 21:52
  • thank you, but it somehow became less clear :D why use articles in English then (non necessarily in this context, just in general) ? – Hiwi9012 Oct 24 '19 at 22:33
  • @Hiwi9012 you're right that "the" usually means a specific reference to an item (and it could be used that way here too if there was a specific guitar you wanted to refer to). However "a" doesn't usually mean an unspecific reference to a class; it usually refers to an unspecific item. The generic sense of "a" is typically used only in definitions ("a guitar is a musical instrument"); it cannot be used as a class reference in general. – Uri Granta Oct 25 '19 at 5:04
  • thank you for help – Hiwi9012 Oct 25 '19 at 20:23

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