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I'm a little bit confused by the way Mick used the indefinite article a in his comment:

You could say that the child is playing at basketball, or playing with a basketball.

Why the phrase at basketball hasn't got any article whereas the phrase with a basketball has got the indefinite article a?

My guess would be that the key point here is the preposition (at) that in the first case prevents its use whereas, in the second case the preposition (with) calls for its use, but I'm not sure either whether there's such a thing in English as the preposition to be decisive in the indefinite article use or what other rule may govern this situation.

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    It's the difference between the game called basketball, and the object called a basketball, which is used in the game of basketball – Au101 Dec 29 '16 at 23:18
  • The prepositions have nothing to do with the matter. You can be sitting at a table or playing with your brother, for example. @Au101 has it right. – Robusto Dec 29 '16 at 23:23
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It's an idiomatic expression:

To play at: 1. To pretend to be or to do something for amusement or out of curiosity; 2. To do or take part in something halfheartedly:

So in this case (as Au101 mentions in his comment) "to play at basketball" means to play the game of basketball in a desultory manner, while to "play with a basketball" means to use the actual ball.

Other examples of "play at":

She played at being a lawyer, but her heart was always set on politics.

The soldiers played at dice while they were waiting for the enemy to attack.

People say he just plays at being a developer, but still, he's made millions off of his app.

  • Also, the sport 'basketball' is an uncountable noun; the physical object 'basketball' is a countable noun. – John Feltz Dec 30 '16 at 15:47
  • @JohnFeltz True, but you actually can't "play at" a countable noun. You can only "play at" an activity. "He played at a basketball" is not idiomatic. – Andrew Dec 30 '16 at 15:56
  • Agreed. But you can 'play at billiards', which a learner might think was plural... – John Feltz Dec 30 '16 at 15:58
  • @JohnFeltz Good point. – Andrew Dec 30 '16 at 16:01

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