What Does "Zero Articles" Mean in Grammar?

Erik Dreyer/Getty Images

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 determiners.

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.

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."
  • 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.
  • 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."
    • 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:Zero article with plural count nouns may have generic or indefinite reference according to the predication: A mass noun with zero article can be considered generic even if it is modified: Colombian coffee is said to be the best."
    • Kangaroos are common in Australia.
    • Wine is one of this country's major exports.
    • Frogs have long hind legs. (generic = all frogs)
    • He catches frogs. (indefinite = an indefinite number of frogs)

Sources

George Herbert

Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2008

Angela Downing, English Grammar. Routledge, 2006

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Does "Zero Articles" Mean in Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/zero-article-grammar-1692619. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 18). What Does "Zero Articles" Mean in Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/zero-article-grammar-1692619 Nordquist, Richard. "What Does "Zero Articles" Mean in Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/zero-article-grammar-1692619 (accessed November 21, 2017).