28th June 2020
Grammar Tips: Understanding the Zero Article
You might be familiar with the definite article (‘the’) and indefinite articles (‘a’ or ‘an’), but have you heard of the zero article? This post will explain what the zero article is and when to use it in your writing.
What Is the Zero Article?
The definite and indefinite articles are key parts of English. We use the definite article (‘the’) to refer to something specific or particular:
And we use the indefinite articles (‘a’ or ‘an’) to refer to something non-specific, such as when discussing something in general terms or when we’re not sure of something’s identity. For instance:
However, you don’t always need an article before a noun or noun phrase in English. This is called the zero article. For example:
This sentence is perfect as it is! Were we to add articles before the noun ‘football’ here, though, it would be incorrect:
When, then, should you use the zero article? Let’s take a look.
Proper nouns name an individual, thing, or location (e.g. Spain, Simon, Friday) and rarely require an article:
You may need an article, though, if using an adjective with a proper noun:
Here, for instance, we use ‘the’ to specify a particular ‘Friday’.
And you should always include an article if it is part of a proper noun:
These are rare cases, though! And most proper nouns do not need an article.
Generic Plural and Mass Nouns
General statements about a plural noun tend to use the zero article:
The same applies to mass (or uncountable) nouns:
In both cases here, we do not use an article because we’re using the words generically (i.e. to refer to plastic bags and milk in general, not to a specific set of plastic bags or a particular glass of milk).
Were we referring to something specific instead, we would need to use articles as normal (e.g. if we were referring to ‘the plastic bags that you use for your groceries’ or ‘the milk in the fridge’).
Means of Transport
We do not usually use an article when describing how something travels:
However, you should use the appropriate articles when referring to vehicles otherwise (e.g. someone might ‘travel by bus’, but we would still say ‘the bus is waiting’ or ‘a bus passed by half an hour ago’).
Games and Sports
You do not usually need an article before the name of a game or sport:
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This does not apply when we use a game or sport to modify another word, though (e.g. we would still say ‘the football game’ or ‘a chess piece’).
You would not use ‘a’ or ‘the’ when referring to most meals:
You do need an article if you modify the word in question, though:
Here, for example, we need the definite article in the second sentence because we’ve also added ‘best’ before ‘breakfast’.
Academic subjects, such as history or maths, do not require an article:
However, we do need an article when these words modify another word (e.g. ‘a history book’) or when they are modified by something else (e.g. you can ‘study history’, but you would study ‘the history of England’ or ‘the history of shoes’ if you wanted to specify a particular topic of study).
Institutions and Places
We do not usually need an article before a place (e.g. school, prison or bed) when we are referring to its main purpose:
In all the examples above, for instance, we’re referring to the noun in term of its purpose (i.e. school is where you study, prison is where you are imprisoned, and bed is where you sleep).
If we were to use the same words but refer to the buildings/objects in themselves, though, we would need to use an article before the noun:
The key exception here is ‘hospital’ in American English! In other English dialects, it is common to say ‘in hospital’ to mean ‘receiving treatment at a hospital’. But in American English, you would usually say ‘in the hospital’ instead:
Common Time Expressions
We also use the zero article with some common time expressions. As well as days and months (which are proper nouns), this can include:
- Seasons (in summer, when winter begins)
- Times of day (I woke up at midnight, we will meet at noon)
- With ‘tomorrow’, ‘today’ and ‘yesterday’ (I’ll do it today)
- When using ‘last’ before a time phrase (we went last week)
The key exceptions here are ‘morning’, ‘afternoon’ and ‘evening’, all of which usually require the definite article:
Noun + Number
It is common to omit articles when a noun is followed by a number. For example, we would typically add an article before both ‘platform’ and ‘page’ when using these words in a sentence:
However, were we to specify a particular platform or page with a number, we would need to use the zero article instead:
Expert Grammar Proofreading
As you can see, the zero article can be quite tricky to master! For more guidance, check out our common ESL writing errors guide.
It can also help to have a native English speaker check your writing. Our expert proofreaders, for example, can help you make sure that you always use the right articles in the right places. Why not give it a try for free today?
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