Submitted by chacha  •  July 4, 2006

Doing the dishes...

Nouns describing activities don’t normally take an article in English e.g. I go running, I play cards, I hate tennis, etc.

Why then do many domestic activities take the definite article? e.g. I do the dishes, I do the hoovering, I hate doing the housework, etc.

Can somebody explain to me the rules that govern this type of construction? Are there any other examples of this kind of usage outside of the domestic sphere?

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Huh? Participle or gerund? "My" before it means it's a gerund.

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It seems to me that the obligation to housework that you and many other women feel is tied to the linguistic structure is being repeated in the way we talk about it. It is interesting how that obligation has become culturally associated with our patterns of talk.

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Hoovering = vacuuming.

In the UK a hoover is a vacuum cleaner, and to hoover is to clean the floor with one. This comes from the Hoover company, which I think is well known in the US as well.

They are manufacturers of household goods and were the first to sell vacuum cleaners on a large scale, and so their brand name became a genericized treademark in the UK.

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Hoovering???

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Techincally, we ought to "wash" dishes, not "do" them. But I don't think that "doing" is limited to housework. After all, don't we "do" other activities as well?

We do homework.
We "do" a job.
We "do" some push-ups.
Etc.

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What occurs to me is that in the second construction (with definite article,) the verb DO, in some form, precedes the noun phrase. So maybe the question is why do we need "do" to talk about household chores, but not other daily activities?

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Offhand, I don't think it has anything to do with the verbs in question, per se. Rather, I think, a restrictive phrase such as "in the house" is being elided.

Since most housework is done to a very limited and specific group of objects - the ones in the house - these objects may be sufficiently restricted and will therefore take the definite article.

Consider these two sentences:

Every day, I wash the dishes at home.
Every day, I wash dishes at the restaurant.

Adding the definite article in the first sentence suggests that I am washing a specific set of dishes. This makes sense because, persumably, there is a limited number of dishes in the house needing to be washed.

Leaving the definite article out in the second sentence suggests that there are lots of dishes and it doesn't really matter which ones I am washing. This too makes sense because in a restaurant there is a constant flow of dirty dishes needing a wash.

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While I can't think of a rule for this, it does occur to me that the expression "do the necessary" may offer a clue to why the chores get a definite article.

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