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Often, when we say about winning prizes, we say it without any articles:

I won first prize/ first place.

And as far as I know, people use "the" with names of specific prizes:

He won the Pulitzer prize.

She won the Nobel prize.

He won the Field's medal.

But, what I am wondering is what about medals. Is it

Jessica Ennis won an Olympic gold medal

or is it

She won the Olympic gold medal

And would it make any difference if it was some other kind of gold medal, not an Olympic one? And what if in the case nothing is aforementioned and is just a "gold medal"?

Also, I believe, "win first prize" is almost like a phrase. But would it make any difference if it was with capital letters, so the name of the prize was First Prize. I think similar things can be asked about "honourable mention" as well. Are both only used without articles when simply describing someone winning it?

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This usage for prizes follows the general rules for any other use of the definite/indefinite/zero article for countable objects:

  • Use the definite article for a specific, known instance:

    She won the gold medal for the 100 meter freestyle in the 2018 Olympic games.

  • Use the indefinite article for a nonspecific instance.

    She won a gold medal in the 2018 Olympic games.

  • Use no article for plural instances, or for certain general instances.

    She took first place in the 100 meter freestyle in the 2018 Olympic games, and brought home the gold medal.

The last one is the tricky bit. Many prizes are named and take the definite article: "the Nobel Prize", "the Oscar Awards", "the Palme d'Or", "the title of Miss Universe", etc. However, "first/second/third/etc. place" does not, nor does "last place", and possibly others.

Still others sometimes do and sometimes do not, e.g. "top billing" or "highest honors".

The actor was annoyed because his co-star received (the) top billing on the official movie poster.

This seems a matter of writing style, which is to say, both personal dialect and personal choice, and may change over time.

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