Zero Article

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Understanding when to use Zero Articles (Ø) in Your Writings

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.

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

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

      • Ø Bullets were flying everywhere.
      • The street was covered with Ø leaves.
      • Ø Teachers want good materials.
      • Ø Tigers are dangerous.

In example-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 examples 3a, 4a, and 5a.

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

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

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.

    1. Personal name
      • Ø Mary is a successful interior decorator.
    1. Professional title
      • I would like you to meet Ø Dr. Philips.
    1. Institutional name
      • She went to Ø Harvard University.
    1. City name
      • John lives in Ø Melbourne.
    1. Geographical name
      • They have a large house on Ø Lake Michigan.

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 example-7a, breakfast preceded by the zero article refers to the custom of eating the first meal of the day.

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

By contrast, in example-7b, breakfast preceded by the definite article refers to a particular morning meal that has been eaten, and in example-7c breakfast preceded by the indefinite article refers to the particular kind of morning meals the restaurant serves.

In example-7b and -7c, the placement of definite and indefinite articles before the noun breakfast particularizes it.

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

    1. An institution
      • He’s in Ø church right now.
    1. A particular place known to the listener
      • They held the ceremony in the church.
    1. An institution
      • They were both sent to Ø jail.
    1. A particular place known to the listener
      • The jail houses over 300 inmates.

In addition to the noun in examples-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

  • They 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 examples-9.

    1. British English
      • Lucy is in Ø hospital. She had a bad automobile accident.
    1. American English
      • Lucy is in the hospital. She had a bad automobile accident.
    1. American English
      • We were at the university together.
    1. British English
      • We were at Ø university together.
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.

  1. Days, Months, and Seasons

    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 examples 10a, 10b, and 10c. The definite article with other noun modifiers, as in examples 10d and 10e, can be used in designating particular months or days.

        • May is the most pleasant month.
        • She usually goes skiing in December.
        • He always visits his mother on Tuesday.
        • That was the December when it snowed over 30 inches in two days.
        • She always visits her mother on the second Tuesday of each month.
        • 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 example-10f. Notice that example-10c could also take the indefinite article (He always visits his mother on a Tuesday).

  2. Modes of Transportation and Communication

    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 examples 11b, 11c, and 11d.

        • They went by plane, but we prefer to travel by train.
        • You can contact him by phone.
        • I’ll send it by express mail.
        • 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 examples 12 indicate.

        • He got off the train at Penn Station.
        • She took a plane to Toledo.
        • It is not a good idea to send money through the mail.
        • We spoke briefly over the phone.
  3. Parallel Structures

    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 examplea 13).

        • They went from place to place
        • It’s an agreement between father and son.
        • That is privileged information between lawyer and client.
        • She quickly made the transition from backup musician to superstar.
  4. Predicate Nominals That Are Unique Titles

    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 examples 14a and -14b respectively.

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

        • She was elected president of her stock club.
  5. Headlines and Signs

    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.

        • FIRE DESTROYS DOWNTOWN OFFICE BUILDING
        • A fire destroyed a downtown office building.
        • Slippery When Wet!
        • The road surface is slippery when it is wet.

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

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  • References
    • The Teacher's Grammar of English with Answers: A Course Book and Reference Guide Zero Article (Pg 215-218) By Ron Cowan.

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