The Definition and Purpose of the Zero Article

Erik Dreyer/Getty Images

In English grammar, the term zero article refers to an occasion in speech or writing where a noun or noun phrase is not preceded by an article (a, an, or the). The zero article is also known as the zero determiner.

In general, no article is used with proper nouns, mass nouns where the reference is indefinite, or plural count nouns where the reference is indefinite. Also, no article is generally used when referring to means of transport (by plane) or common expressions of time and place (at midnight, in jail).

In addition, linguists have found that in regional varieties of English known as New Englishes, omitting an article is often done to express non-specificity.

Examples of the Zero Article

In the following examples, no article is used before the italicized nouns.

  • My mother's name is Rose. I gave her a rose on Mother's Day.
  • Every mile is two in winter.
  • This plant grows in sandy soil and on the edges of swamps.
  • David Rockefeller was authorized to hold the position of director of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Zero Article in American and British English

In American and British English, no article is used before words such as school, college, class, prison or camp when these words are used in their "institutional" sense.

  • The students start school in the fall.
  • College provides opportunities for students to learn and meet new people.

However, some nouns that are used with definite articles in American English are not used with articles in British English.

  • When I was in the hospital, I often wished there were fewer hours in the day.
    [American English]
  • When Elizabeth was in hospital, she was occasionally visited by her parents.
    [British English]

The Zero Article With Plural Count Nouns and Mass Nouns

In the book "English Grammar," Angela Downing writes that "the loosest and therefore most frequent type of generic statement is that expressed by the zero article with plural count nouns or with mass nouns."

Count nouns are those that can form a plural, such as dog or cat. In their plural form, count nouns are sometimes used without an article, especially when they are referred to generically. The same is true when the noun is plural but of indefinite number.

  • Dogs love to run around outside.
  • The boy loves to play with toys.

Mass nouns are those that cannot be counted, such as air or sadness. They also include nouns that are not usually counted but that can be counted in some situations, such as water or meat. (These nouns can be counted using certain measurements, such as some or much.)

  • Clean air is important for a healthy environment.
  • The man was overcome by sadness when he lost his home.

Sources:

Cowan, Ron. The Teachers Grammar of English: a Course Book and Reference Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Downing, Angela. English Grammar. Routledge, 2006.

Platt, John T., et al. The New Englishes. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Definition and Purpose of the Zero Article." ThoughtCo, May. 10, 2018, thoughtco.com/zero-article-grammar-1692619. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, May 10). The Definition and Purpose of the Zero Article. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/zero-article-grammar-1692619 Nordquist, Richard. "The Definition and Purpose of the Zero Article." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/zero-article-grammar-1692619 (accessed May 22, 2018).