11

(1) I became the art project leader.
(2) I got first place in the science contest.
(A Korean middle school English textbook)

What are the reasons that the first sentence has an article and the other none?

5

I'm afraid the only reason to be given is that that is how we say it.

(Usually: you will sometimes see get/win/achieve the first/second/third place/prize, but this is rather old-fashioned and formal.)

There is no semantic principle involved. For instance, you will almost never see awards such as trophies, blue ribbons, and cups, the traditional marks or accompaniments of first place, without the article—even named trophies, like the Heisman Award or the Stanley Cup.

Even place takes an article (indefinite) when it designates achieving membership in a class: Our band was awarded a first place in the state competition, meaning it was one of several bands which won the top rating of '1'.

But if you beat the entire field you come in Ø first place, no article.

  • Ø first place: zero article in this can be the reason of Wikipedia's explanation: “articles are not normally used:in noun phrases that contain other determiners (my house, this cat, America's history), although it is possible to combine articles with certain other determiners”? Because I get the as much ‘the first place’ as ‘first place’ in Google ngrams. – Listenever May 10 '13 at 11:56
  • wikipedia – Listenever May 10 '13 at 11:57
  • 3
    @Listenever "The" is often used with "first". Most of those Ngram "the first places" are not victories but instances of "in the first place" meaning "to begin with". Others are instances of things like "the first place I saw". Even some victories occur in constructions like "the first place winner", where the article belongs to a later noun. – StoneyB May 10 '13 at 12:11
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I think part of the confusion is that place can be a noun or a verb. Imagine you walk into an office with an application form that you've filled out:

"Hello, is this the place to drop off my form?"
"Yes, place it on top of the stack, on the table next to you."

In the first sentence place as a noun, in the second it's a verb.

"First place" could be used as an adjective and noun: "The keys happened to be in the first place I looked for them." But in your puzzling sentence, place is being used in a more verb-like sense because it is not a literal location but an order:

"My wife did very well in the race."
"Oh, how did she place?"
"First!"

Here, place is used in the sense of finishing the race in a particular order and is more verb-like (and archaic, probably).

So, in "I got first place", first place is more of an adverb-verb combination rather than an adjective-noun combination. Hence no article.

An article could appear in the sentence, "I got the first place...", but the full sentence would be something like "I got the first place prize in this year's cooking competition", where the is attached to prize, not place.

  • This is absolutely wrong. When we use place as a noun, we know it is not a verb. The use of first place is idiomatic. – user6951 Jan 8 '15 at 1:35
  • @CarSmack: Idioms aren't simply nonsense phrases that come from nowhere. They don't make literal sense without context, but that doesn't mean they don't have contextual, cultural, or historical roots. In this case, I believe it's an archaic verbish usage. Do you have any proof that I'm "absolutely wrong"? – Wayne Jan 8 '15 at 1:58
  • Read the OED definition of place. 2nd, the only thing 'verbish' about place is that it is part of a noun phrase serving as an adverbial. Third, consider that prize was once used to mean contest (we see a remnant in prize-fight). So, by winning (the) first place you also won (the) first place prize. Fourth, the phrase was once used interchangeably with and without the. Here is one example.. – user6951 Jan 9 '15 at 4:19

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