zero article (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In this short sentence, the nouns Latin and high school are not preceded by articles.

Definition

In English grammar, zero article is an occasion in speech or writing where a noun or noun phrase is not preceded by an article (a, an, or the). Also called zero determiner.

In general, zero article is used with proper nouns, mass nouns where the reference is indefinite, and plural count nouns where the reference is indefinite. Also, zero article is generally used with means of transport ("by plane") and common expressions of time and place ("at midnight," "in jail").

In addition, Platt, Weber, and Lian found that in New Englishes zero article is often used to express non-specificity (The New Englishes, 1984).

Linguist Leszek Berezowski describes the zero article as "the oddball of the English article system." He concludes that it is a "linguistic myth that can now be safely retired and need no longer clutter grammatical descriptions" (The Myth of the Zero Article, 2009). Others have challenged this view.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

In the following examples, zero articles are indicated by the symbol Ø.

  • My mother's name is Ø Rose. I gave her a rose on Ø Mother's Day.
     
  • "Every mile is two in Ø winter."
    (George Herbert)
     
  • This plant grows in Ø sandy soil and on the edges of Ø swamps.
     
  • David Rockefeller was authorized to hold the position of Ø director of the Council on Ø Foreign Relations.
     
  • "If we were to wake up some morning and find that everyone was the same race, creed and color, we would find some other cause for Ø prejudice by Ø noon."
    (George Aiken)
     
  • "If you meet at Ø dinner a man who has spent his life in educating himself you rise from the table richer."
    (Oscar Wilde)

     
  • "[T]he majority of the workers were Ø lumberjacks who ranked at the bottom of the workforce."
    (Chantal Norrgard, Seasons of Change. University of North Carolina Press, 2014)

     
  • At Ø night, the buildings are guarded by Ø police officers. In the daytime, the buildings are unguarded.
     
  • The Zero Article in American English and British English
    Zero article . . . is also used with school, college, class, prison and camp when these are used in their 'institutional' sense. . . . [C]ertain 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: hospital, university, and government."
    (Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

    - 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]
     
  • Zero Articles With Plural Count Nouns and With Mass Nouns
    "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:
    • Kangaroos are common in Australia.
    • Wine is one of this country's major exports.
    Zero article with plural count nouns may have generic or indefinite reference according to the predication:
    • Frogs have long hind legs. (generic = all frogs)
    • He catches frogs. (indefinite = an indefinite number of frogs)
    A mass noun with zero article can be considered generic even if it is modified: Colombian coffee is said to be the best."
    (Angela Downing, English Grammar. Routledge, 2006)