Zero Article

Understanding when to use Zero Articles (Ø) in English Grammar

In English, there are instances in which count and noncount nouns have no preceding article— where neither definite nor indefinite article is used. Grammarians have referred to such instances as Zero Article. In this entry you will learn all about Zero Article.
  • Zero Article refers to the absence of a definite or an indefinite article before a noun.

Those instances in which count and noncount nouns have no preceding article (or any other modifier) may be referred to as instances of zero article (symbolized as Ø).

Nouns with zero article often denote meanings that could be represented using either an indefinite or definite article. For example, the noncount noun milk in example 1) denotes an unspecified quantity of milk and corresponds to the indefinite some milk in 1b).

  • 1a)  There’s Ø milk in the fridge, if you are thirsty.
  • 1b)  There’s some milk in the fridge, if you are thirsty.

In 2a) and 2b), plural count nouns bullets and leaves with zero article, like the noncount noun milk in 1a), denote an indefinite amount of these entities.

  • 2a)  Ø Bullets were flying everywhere.
  • 2b)  The street was covered with Ø leaves.
  • 2c)  Ø Teachers want good materials.
  • 2d)  Ø Tigers are dangerous.

In 2c) and 2d), the plural count nouns with zero article are examples of generic reference. The plural count noun teachers denotes teachers generally, or as a group, and tigers denotes members of that species generally. Other possibilities for expressing generic reference with articles will be discussed as we delve deeper in this entry.

Zero Article Preceding Abstract Nouns

Nouns preceded by zero article can denote a particular meaning that contrasts with that denoted by nouns preceded by definite and indefinite articles. With abstract noncount nouns such as education, beauty, intelligence, and consciousness, zero article plus nouns denotes the general concept, state, or field expressed by the noun, as in 3a), 4a), and 5a).

In such cases, zero article contrasts with the definite article, which means “specifically identifiable,” as in 3b), 4b), and 5b); and with the indefinite article, which usually means “type/kind of,” as in 3c), 4c), and 5c).

  • 3a)  Is Ø intelligence hereditary? → zero article
  • 3b)  The intelligence we saw was remarkable for one so young. → definite article
  • 3c)  Apes display an intelligence similar but not identical to that found in humans. → indefinite article
  • 4a)  Ø Education is becoming more specialized these days. → zero article
  • 4b)  The education I received at my alma mater prepared me for life. → definite article
  • 4c)  He received a good, old-fashioned, liberal arts education. → indefinite article
  • 5a)  Ø Beauty is ephemeral, but character is definable and recognizable. → zero article
  • 5b)  The beauty of her smile was legendary. → definite article
  • 5c)  She has a beauty that if find elusive but nevertheless compelling. → indefinite article

Zero Article Preceding Names

Names of people, places, and many professional titles appear with zero article, as in 6), although we will see that this is not the case for many names of institutions and geographical entities.

  • 6a) Ø Mary is a successful interior decorator. → personal name
  • 6b)  I would like you to meet Ø Dr. Philips. → professional title
  • 6c)  She went to Ø Harvard University. → institutional name
  • 6d)  John lives in Ø Melbourne. → city name
  • 6e)  They have a large house on Ø Lake Michigan. → geographical name

Zero Article Preceding Nouns designating customs or institutions

Zero article often precedes nouns that are being used to designate a custom or an institution. For example, in 7a), breakfast preceded by the zero article refers to the custom of eating the first meal of the day.

  • 7a)  He always eats Ø breakfast in the kitchen. → a custom
  • 7b)  The breakfast was delicious! → a particular meal known to the listener
  • 7c)  They serve a fantastic breakfast at that restaurant. → particular kind of meal served

By contrast, in 7b), breakfast preceded by the definite article refers to a particular morning meal that has been eaten, and in 7c) breakfast preceded by the indefinite article refers to the particular kind of morning meals the restaurant serves. In 7b) and 7c), the placement of definite and indefinite articles before the noun breakfast particularizes it.

The distinction illustrated in 7) is paralleled in 8) with two nouns that designate institutions, church and jail.

  • 8a)  He’s in Ø church right now. → an institution
  • 8b)  They held the ceremony in the church. → a particular place known to the listener
  • 8c)  They were both sent to Ø jail. → an institution
  • 8d)  The jail houses over 300 inmates. → a particular place known to the listener

In addition to the noun in 8), zero article is also used with school, college, class, prison, and camp when these are used in their “institutional” sense. The use of zero article with institutions is, however, somewhat unpredictable, in that some institutions do not take zero article.

    For instance, we can say
  • The go to Ø church every week,
  • but we don’t say
  • *They go to Ø mosque every week.
  • We must use an article with that particular institution:
  • They go to a/the mosque every week.

Moreover, certain nouns that are never used with zero article in American English do occur with zero article in British English when used in their institutional sense. For example, these two dialects diverge with respect to the nouns hospital, university, and government, as illustrated in 9).

  • 9a)  Lucy is in Ø hospital. She had a bad automobile accident. → British English
  • 9b)  Lucy is in the hospital. She had a bad automobile accident. → American English
  • 9c)  We were at the university together. → American English
  • 9d)  We were at Ø university together. → British English
Important Hint!  

This is an important point that ESL teachers should be aware of, since they may have occasion to teach students who have received instruction from native speakers of British English. Teachers who are not familiar with this divergence in article use may mistakenly view a zero article in these contexts as an error.

Additional Facts About Zero Article

In addition to the situations previously illustrated, zero article also frequently occurs with other types of count nouns. These uses are almost always idiomatic, and often definite or indefinite articles could be used in these or similar contexts.

With seasons, there is considerable variation between use of zero article and of the definite article, especially when the season follows a prepositionOpens in new window.

    For example,
  • In winter we go to Florida
  • means the same thing as,
  • In the winter we go to Florida.

However, days and months generally take only zero article, as shown in 10a) 10b), and 10c). The definite article with other noun modifiers, as in 10d) and 10e), can be used in designating particular months or days.

  • 10a)  May is the most pleasant month.
  • 10b)  She usually goes skiing in December.
  • 10c)  He always visits his mother on Tuesday.
  • 10d)  That was the December when it snowed over 30 inches in two days.
  • 10e)  She always visits her mother on the second Tuesday of each month.
  • 10f)  Let’s schedule our next meeting on a Monday.

The indefinite article is commonly used with days when a specific day is not intended, as in 10f). Notice that 10c) could also take the indefinite article (He always visits his mother on a Tuesday).

Nouns that denote modes of transportation, such as bus, car, taxi, and train, take zero article when they are preceded by the preposition by, as is the case in 11a). This is also true for nouns that denote modes of communication, such as telephone, mail, e-mail, and fax, as in 11b), 11c), and 11d).

  • 11a)  They went by plane, but we prefer to travel by train.
  • 11b)  You can contact him by phone.
  • 11c)  I’ll send it by express mail.
  • 11d)  You can always get in touch with me by e-mail.

Note, however, that if the mode of transportation or communication is not preceded by the preposition by, a definite or indefinite article is required, as 12) indicates.

  • 12a)  He got off the train at Penn Station.
  • 12b)  She took a plane to Toledo.
  • 12c)  It is not a good idea to send money through the mail.
  • 12d)  We spoke briefly over the phone.

In expressions where two identical or semantically related count nouns are joined by a prepositionOpens in new window or a coordinating conjunctionOpens in new window, both nouns may take zero article, as demonstrated in 13).

  • 13a)  They went from place to place
  • 13b)  It’s an agreement between father and son.
  • 13c)  That is privileged information between lawyer and client.
  • 13d)  She quickly made the transition from backup musician to superstar.

Predicate nominalsOpens in new window that are unique titles, in the sense of positions being held by one person, can take zero article or a definite article, as shown in 14a) and 14b) respectively.

  • 14a)  John is managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
  • 14b)  John is the managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Certain “naming” verbs such as name, elect, and appoint take an object with zero article, as shown in 14c).

  • 14c)  She was elected president of her stock club.

Articles are commonly omitted from signs and headlines of newspapers to save space since the nouns with zero article retain enough information for the reader to interpret them.

  • 15b)  A fire destroyed a downtown office building.
  • 15c)  Slippery When Wet!
  • 15d)  The road surface is slippery when it is wet.

Note that the headline in 15a) means 15b) and that the road sign in 15c) has the same meaning as 15d).