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Suppose that you want to say that you have put your wet shirt outside so that the sunlight dries it off. Now if you want to mention the sunlight in your sentence with a prepositional phrase, how would you word it? I have come up with the following sentences:

  1. I have put my wet shirt outside to dry off under the sun.
  2. I have put my wet shirt outside in the sunlight [ without the? ] to dry off.

It seems that, in the sun light and in sunlight are the more common prepositional phrases. What would be the difference between the case with and without definite article? Also, is there any justification on why under is not used?

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The use of prepositions is not determined by general rules. It is a mess of special cases. But the rules about determiners do follow general rules.

Nouns that are proper names do not take determiners. Nouns that are mass nouns do not take determiners. Nouns that are countable nouns, are in the singular, and are not being used as proper names do require determiners. There is a more complex rule for plural countable nouns that is not relevant to your question.

"Sunlight" is an odd noun. If I go outside, can I count how many "sunlights" there are? No. That indicates "sunlight" can be considered a mass noun in some contexts. However, there are many sources of light, of which sunlight is one. So in other contexts, "sunlight" can be considered a countable noun. Thus, whether a determiner is needed depends on intended meaning in a specific context.

"Sun" is most definitely a countable noun. How many are there in this solar system? One. No doubt at all. Determiners apply to singular uses of "sun" unless it is being used as a proper name.

When we get to the prepositions, the rules are numerous and fuzzy and subject to many exceptions. "In" is generally used to specify a state of being surrounded rather than a direction. Sunlight envelops us outdoors (unless it is night or cloudy). So the "sound" of "in" seems "natural" to a native speaker. If we were surrounded by the sun, we would be fried to a crisp in an instant. The sun is distant and has a distinct direction associated with it; it is above us, and we are below it. So it "sounds natural" to say "under the sun." However, if "the sun" is being equated conceptually to "sunlight," it will then sound just as natural to say "in the sun" because there is no directionality being referenced.

Personally, I would say "dry in the sun." "Dry under the sun," "dry in the sunlight," and "dry in sunlight" sound a little odd to me. The first because the directionality implied by "under" is irrelevant in context; the second and third because heat rather than light is the actual drying agent. But I suspect that these judgments are mere personal preference. I certainly shall not say that the three variants I disfavor are ungrammatical.

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  • Thanks for your answer, it is interesting that you would say "in the sun", It didn't come to my mind that you would use this sort of metaphors, I mean equating the sun with the sunlight. – Cardinal May 15 '20 at 17:54
  • I am not sure it is best described as a metaphor. I think "in the sun" in this context is better thought of as an ellipsis for "in the heat of the sun." This goes back to my point that it is not light that is really relevant. A February morning may be as gaily bright as one in May, but laying your shirt on the snow to dry it is probably not the recommended procedure. – Jeff Morrow May 15 '20 at 18:08
  • I see, but as I mentioned in comment below my question to @WeatherVane comment, I wrote it that way because I believe the heat is transferred by the light wave (particle). The difference between May and February, I believe, is the fact that the angel of sunlight rays by which they reach the earth is different in May and February. – Cardinal May 15 '20 at 18:35
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    @Cardinal I am not trying to argue physics. Language derives from a time when modern physics was unknown and is used by people entirely innocent of even pre-relativistic physics. In the common tongue, "heat" and "light" are conceived as related but distinct things, e.g., "an explanation that gives more heat than light." To the average speaker, you do not dry clothes outside on even a sunny February day because it is not warm enough to be effective. Heat rather than light is the criterion. The formal understanding of the precession of the equinoxes does not affect English. – Jeff Morrow May 15 '20 at 19:17
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    Sunlight is a perfectly idiomatic word. It is just that among non-technical sorts, it refers to visible light rather than electromagnetic radiation. – Jeff Morrow May 15 '20 at 21:40

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