Zero Article in English Grammar

The Zero Article does not exist. But it is very useful nonetheless.

Talking about the zero article is useful when we’re describing how to use articles‏‎. But essentially when we talk about the zero article we mean that we do not use any article in front of a noun. In other words, we do not use a/an or the.

This article (excuse the pun) talks about when we do not use an article with a noun.

Articles and Nouns

Normally we use articles with nouns:

a dog

an apple

the cow

Did you see a dog chasing the cow who was eating an apple?

The rules for using articles are fairly straightforward. However, sometimes we don’t use any article at all. In other words, we use a zero article. These rules are explained below.

General/Non-Countable Nouns

We don’t use an article if we’re talking about things in general (i.e. we’re not talking about a specific example) or with non-countable nouns‏‎:

Do you like cheese?

He adores dancing.

But if we want to talk about a specific piece of cheese we can use an article and say:

Pass me the cheese please!

OMG the dancing in the show was terrible!

Proper Nouns

Proper nouns‏‎ – or names – don’t usually take an article:

I saw Rhianna in the Main street!

* I saw the Rhianna in the Main street!

* An asterisk denotes an ungrammatical sentence.

However, if we want to distinguish a specific person (as oppose to someone else with the same name) then we can use the definite article‏‎:

A: I met Jennifer Lopez this morning.

B: What? The Jennifer Lopez?

A: No! My roommate’s sister is also called Jennifer Lopez; I’m not talking about the singer.

Noun + Preposition

When we use a noun with a preposition we often do not use an article (that is, we just use the noun on its own):

I went to school but left my books at home. Mother was in church and father at sea; Grandfather came to dinner later by train and Grandmother managed to escape from prison to join us.

Institutions

When we talk about an institution, we use the zero article. When we talk about it as a physical building, however, we use the:

He was taken to court to be tried; in the court he met an old friend.

Nouns in this group include: bed, church, class, college, court, home, hospital, market, prison, school, sea, town, university, work.

The Planets

In general we use the zero article (i.e. no article) with planets.

Mars has 2 known moons while Saturn has 62 known moons.

When it comes to our planet, we can take or leave the article:

The Earth is getting over populated.
The Challenger returned to Earth successfully.

(NB We use the about half the time when we talk about Earth.)

However, we almost always use an article when we talk about the sun in our solar system (or a sun in general) and the moon which circles the Earth.

The Sun is about 150 million km from the Earth but the moon is only 385,000 km.

In general then:

  • use a zero article (i.e. no article) with planets
  • optionally use the with Earth
  • use the to talk about the Sun
  • use the to talk about the moon around our Earth

Also…

We also don’t use an article with:

years: 1961, 1995, 2000
seasons & months: Winter, February
festivals: Easter
continents: Africa, Asia, America, Europe
days: Monday, Tuesday
parts of day/night: midnight, midday, noon, night
magazines: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, GQ
countries: America, Britain, Arabia
cities & towns: London, New York, Tokyo, Sydney, Cairo
streets: Acacia Avenue, Pall Mall, Sunset Boulevard
named buildings: Buckingham Palace, Number 10
airports: Heathrow, John F. Kennedy, Gatwick, Los Angeles International
mountains: Everest, K2, Mont Blanc
games: football, tennis, bar billiards, cards

Exceptions include: the Hague; the Matterhorn; the Mall; the White House, the United States of America.

Useful Links
Articles‏‎ in English Grammar – an overview of articles in English

Definite Article‏‎s in English Grammar – a more detailed look at Definite Articles

Indefinite Article‏‎s in English Grammar – a more detailed look at Indefinite Articles

Posted in Parts of Speech.

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