Grammar Tips: Understanding the Zero Article
6-minute read

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:

I’m washing the windows.

She is going to the cinema tomorrow.

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:

I’d like an egg sandwich for lunch.

A bird flew overhead.

However, you don’t always need an article before a noun or noun phrase in English. This is called the zero article. For example:

She is good at football.

This sentence is perfect as it is! Were we to add articles before the noun “football” here, though, it would be incorrect:

She is good at the football.

When, then, should you use the zero article? Let’s take a look.

Proper Nouns

Proper nouns name an individual, thing, or location (e.g., Spain, Simon, Friday) and rarely require an article:

We hope to visit Paris one day.

We hope to visit the Paris one day.

Do you speak Spanish?

Do you speak the Spanish?

You may need an article, though, if using an adjective with a proper noun:

Did you work the Friday before last?

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:

I read The Times every morning.

She is a big fan of A Tribe Called Quest.

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:

Plastic bags are bad for the environment.

The same applies to mass (or uncountable) nouns:

Drinking milk makes your bones stronger.

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:

We made the journey on foot.

They will be arriving by plane.

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:

We play football together.

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He always wins at chess.

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”).

Meals

You would not use “a” or “the” when referring to most meals:

I ate breakfast in bed today.

What shall we have for lunch?

You do need an article if you modify the word in question, though:

I had the best breakfast ever on holiday.

Here, for example, we need the definite article in the second sentence because we’ve also added “best” before “breakfast.”

Academic Subjects

Academic subjects, such as history or math, do not require an article:

He studies history at college.

She is good at math.

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:

He studies hard at school.

She is doing hard time in prison.

I will go to bed when I am tired.

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 school had a good reputation.

I work in a prison on the edge of town.

The bed had been left unmade.

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:

He was here in the morning.

I will do it in the afternoon.

She likes to exercise in the evening.

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:

We waited on the platform.

I marked the page for you.

However, were we to specify a particular platform or page with a number, we would need to use the zero article instead:

We waited on platform six.

I marked page 44 for you.

Expert Grammar Proofreading

As you can see, the zero article can be quite tricky to master!

Unless you are confident about when to use (and when not to use) articles, then, it can pay 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 today?

Comments (5)
Elle Caballero
29th June 2020 at 14:29
Since a noun is definite when both the speaker and listener (or writer and reader) are thinking about the same specific noun, can we truly consider the examples in the Noun+Number section to be truly Zero Article? For instance, “the platform” became “platform six.” We’re still thinking about the “same specific noun,” since the=six. On the other hand, when Sally says, I’m going to bed,” we have no idea where she’s going, what kind of bed she has, where it is, or if it’s even hers. She could be staying in a hotel. That is truly a Zero Article noun. Can you give some different examples, please?
    Proofed
    29th June 2020 at 15:25
    Hi, Elle. In English, an article is always "a," "an," or "the." Whether the zero article applies, then, depends on whether we omit these words from a sentence, not on whether the noun that follows is determinate or otherwise. The key in the noun + number case is that we omit the article before the noun because the number helps us identify it instead. For instance, if we say "The picture is on the page," we use "the" to indicate that we're referring to a specific page. But if we say "The picture is on page 26," the number already shows that we're referring to a specific page, so we don't need the article. And since we don't use an article, it is an example of the "zero article." Don't forget, too, that the zero article is used in many situations, but they differ in some respects. The case of a noun + number is similar to that of a proper noun, where we don't use an article because the number indicates a unique entity in context (e.g., a book should only have one page 26, unless there has been a misprint, so we don't need another determiner to identify it any more than we need to say "The Bono" to identify the frontman of U2 by his name). But with "go to bed," by contrast, we use the zero article because we're focusing on the purpose of the noun rather than its identity (i.e., while Sally probably has a bed in mind, the focus of "going to bed" is the idea of retiring to sleep, not picking out the specific bed she is sleeping in). Hope this helps a bit!
Elle Caballero
29th June 2020 at 14:36
By the way, this article, for the purpose for which it was written, is wonderful! The foregoing was simply a question that was stimulated upon reading it. Thank you for your tireless efforts.
Carmen
18th September 2020 at 21:47
Glad you guys posted this Zero Article article. The argument came up with the use of "platform", as in We are creating platform for students to succeed. It is neither "a" platform, or "the" platform but platform in its many facets. It is the same as one might say, we are creating space for LGBTQIA folk to make art. "Space," in this instance, is without an article. Both examples demonstrate how the spoken word intersects with the written to produce meaning sans an article. Another example might be: We have established home for refugees who have come to us with nothing but the clothes on their backs. "Home" does not need an article, because here again it is not specific and the writer/speaker hopes to convey its broad meaning like the aforementioned, "platform" and "space".
    Proofed
    19th September 2020 at 10:21
    Hi, Carmen. You would usually need an article with "platform" and "home" in those contexts since they don't standardly have the same semi-abstract usage as "space," but it's an interesting thought as to how omitting the article might change their meaning.

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