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Apparently it's technically correct to say "He won the first place" (or so people tell me), but that sounds odd to me. I'm more familiar with hearing "He won first place".

Is there a linguistic/grammatical reason for why we drop "the" from that sentence? Or is it that over time, people couldn't be bothered to say it?

Google Ngram Results

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  • If you want to follow best practice you should discard the article wherever possible (so forget about following the best practice). The one that always gets up my nose is not fit for purpose, where I always think there should be some kind of "determiner" before purpose. Sep 2 '20 at 12:13
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Numbers are odd, if you’ll pardon the pun.

First can function as a determiner, which you could grammatically replace with, say, some. We don’t usually put articles before determiners in English, so we’re left with the “he won first place” variant.

First can also function as an adjective, which you could replace grammatically with, say, best. The ‘article adjective noun’ pattern is commonplace in English, yielding noun phrases such as “the best dish”, “a common occurrence”, and so on. This yields the “he won the first place” variant.

The two variants are therefore both grammatically sound, with a nuanced difference.

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This is typical of a pattern of use, apparently; the same thing is true for "(shift) into first gear/into the first gear" (ngram). For gears there is not even any occurrence of the article for higher number (ngram). This pattern is true for "place" and "gear" but it is not so for "year" in "into the first year/into first year", word for which it is reversed, although the frequency of the occurrences of dropped "the" are higher (ngram). In my opinion, this tends to point to usage dependent patterns which are determined by the consequences of heavy use that is being made of the locutions and the relative importance particular associated contextual habits such as telegraphic formulation, journalese, frequent abreviations…

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When an ordinal (first, second, etc.)is followed by a noun, 'the' comes before the ordinal, for example, 'He won the first place'. However, if the ordinal is not followed by a noun, 'the' does not come before the ordinal, e.g., 'He came first'.

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