In helping students say their first sentence or write an essay for university classes, some mistakes never seem to go away. I am talking about articles. Most students study articles very early on, and it makes sense. Articles are among the most-used words in English. Unfortunately, this also often leads to problems for learners of all levels. In working with my students, one of the most common issues I hear involves the “zero article”.
In fact, many beginner grammar books only mention “a”, “an”, and “the” when discussing articles. They give simple sentences like, for example:
- I see a cat.
- The cat is grey.
But notice what happens in an example sentence like this:
- Cats are my favorite animal.
Where are the articles? There must be some mistake!
This is the “zero article”. Notice that before “cats”, there is nothing (or “zero”). Let’s take a look at why this happens and how to use it to make your English sound much more natural.
General Concept and Unknown Amounts — Count Nouns
“A”, “an”, and “the” are great for talking about a single or a specific thing. For instance, my wife loves to tell people we have “a” dog. People ask about his name; “the” dog’s name is Pico. But, this all changes if someone asks about my wife’s favorite animal. She does not like one specific dog; she likes most dogs. Now, we need to use the zero article. For example:
- Dogs are her favorite animal.
By making the noun plural (dogs) and removing the article, we can show that my wife likes dogs in general. This is used all of the time, from things we like:
- Example: Do you like movies? (note the “zero article” before “movies”).
To expressing general facts or situations:
- Example: People visit zoos to visit animals (note the “zero article” before “people”, “zoos”, and “animals”).
In all of these cases, we do not want to specify only one movie or one person, or even one zoo. We want to speak generally. So, we use the zero article and make the noun plural. This is also useful for situations when you do not want to show a specific amount, like this:
- Dad, I want milk (note the “zero article” before “milk”).
In this case, it is not clear, or even important, how much milk the daughter wants; the goal is just to let Dad know what she wants to drink.
Other times, it may be impossible to count something because there are so many. In the United States during autumn, this often happens:
- The street was covered with leaves (note the “zero article” before “leaves”).
You have better things to do than count leaves on the ground; there are too many! The zero article saves you time when the amount of something is not really important. But what if we have a noncount noun?
General Concept and Abstract Ideas — Noncount Nouns
If you are reading this, there is a good chance you are studying English. You have probably even said this before:
- I speak English.
Notice that there is no article before “English”; in this case, we are using the language as a noncount noun. This is also seen in other, abstract areas, such as religion or intelligence. For example:
- Religion has existed for thousands of years (where there is no article before “religion”).
- Intelligence is difficult to measure (where there is no article before “intelligence”).
When dealing with a noncount noun, especially for abstract concepts you cannot touch, the zero article is used. In the first example, note that “religion” is used to describe the topic in general instead of a specific religion.
Yet besides count and noncount nouns, there are also a few very common uses for zero articles that you’ve already used many times.
The Zero Article in Idioms and Customs
Consider: a friend asks you when your next class is. You may give an answer like this:
- I have class every Tuesday in December this winter.
Before days of the week (e.g., “Tuesday”), months (e.g., “December”), and seasons (e.g., “winter”), the zero article is used. This is a general rule in English.
The same applies generally to things like names:
- Example: Abdullah is my friend (note there is no article before “Abdullah”).
- Example: It is easier to travel by train (no article before “train”).
- Example: Breakfast is served at 7:30am (no article before “breakfast”).
Rather than having a formula to follow for examples like these, the key to learning these situations is repetition, reading, and noticing how native speakers drop the article.
Making Mistakes with the Zero Article and Final Thoughts
While it is definitely one of the most common mistakes my students make, using the wrong article, in most situations, will not lead to big misunderstandings in conversation or writing. That being said, it is one of the small markers that may separate an 8 from a 9 on an IELTS exam, or a very good English speaker from someone who sounds near-native or better. To help with clarity, or to be sure your exact meaning comes across, it will be necessary to master all articles, the zero article included.
These are among the most common uses for one of the more problematic aspects of English grammar, though you should be confident knowing that you have probably already used many sentences like these before. If anything, I hope you leave this with a better understanding of how the zero article, and even aspects of the other articles, work.
For those looking for exercises or drills, one of the easiest things to do would be to find a newspaper story, remove the articles, wait a day or two, and then try to add the articles back into the writing. This will expose you to authentic, original documents written in English and give you practice at the same time. Spending a few minutes every day noticing where the zero article is used and practicing drills will help you speak English in a way that is natural, correct, and native-like.