CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author

Zero article

The zero article sounds as though it might refer to the words ‘none’, ‘no’ or ‘not one’, but that is not actually the case. An ‘article’ is probably one of the hardest grammatical things to describe. I’ve used a few of them already in this piece, but it’s a great deal easier to use than to explain, let me tell you! In essence, an article is the word before the noun that determines its specificity: ‘the’, ‘every’ (definite) and ‘a’, ‘an’ (indefinite).

So what does a ‘zero article’ or the ‘zero determiner’ mean? It simply means the article is absent. You may think that sounds grammatically awkward or incorrect, but it’s actually more common than it might appear on the surface. Firstly, no article is necessary when being used with proper nouns.

Ruxandra likes to jump in puddles.
Mt Cook can be seen across the lake.
I’m not a huge fan of London, it’s too crowded.
At long last, we reached Main Street.
I found it quite hard to learn German as a child.

Here, the power of the proper noun does away with the necessity for labelling the noun with an article. There is only one London or one Ruxandra that we would likely be talking about, for instance. Of course, there are situational exceptions, such as:

The Alex in the back row of our year photo was the tallest guy in the grade, but the Alex in the front row was the shortest.
“I wish I could find myself a Mr Darcy.”
“This isn’t quite the London I remember…”

Another instance of when a zero article would be brought into use is with unspecified plural common nouns and mass ‘uncountable’ nouns, such as:

Daniel is not a fan of heights.
Antique furniture is what I generally prefer.
I’ve never been this close to snow before.
Air is necessary for humans to survive.
We spent the day moving furniture upstairs.
What ghastly weather we’re having!
The family retreated indoors when hail began to fall.
Cats love to play with toy mice.

But even when it comes to singular common nouns, zero articles can be used. Often, you will notice that no article has been included when the nouns are references to locations, transport or even times; for example:

I went to school today.
Jan spilt coffee all down her shirt in the kitchen at work.
At dawn, she went for a run.
It was midday by the time Tom got there.
We had to take the children to the doctor by train.
One way to get from the South Island of New Zealand to the North is to go by ferry.

So with all that on board, what is the point of the zero article? When not adhering to the basic rules of proper nouns, its main purpose is to demonstrate a lack of specificity or to provide a sense of genericness. In the above examples, including an article might provide additional information that could change the meaning of the sentence.

For instance, ‘I went to school today’ is vastly different to ‘I went to a school today’. The first sentence insinuates you were going to school to learn or a specific school that both speaker and listener already know about; however, the second could suggest a parent going to look at a prospective school for their child.

Similarly, ‘We spent the day moving furniture upstairs’ is unspecific in the amount of furniture that’s being moved, whereas ‘We spent the day moving the furniture upstairs’ could imply all the furniture from downstairs is being taken upstairs.

Likewise, ‘I went to the city by bus’ rather than ‘I caught the bus to the city’ could include multiple bus rides, as it might, depending on where you live; and ‘Cats love to play with toy mice’ is very generic—insinuating that all cats enjoy playing with all toy mice—as opposed to ‘the cats’, which would mean specific cats (most likely revealed through additional context). And let me tell you, not all cats enjoy playing with all toy mice. My own cat is very picky with her choice of prey.

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