Zero Article: When and When Not to Use It

In this blog, we’ll cover the idea of the “zero article” and break down rules regarding when to use it.

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

In English (and all languages), there are many rules about the use of zero articles (a, an, the) with nouns. They can even confuse native speakers.

For example:

I really like cheesecake! It’s one of my favorite desserts in the world. Maybe after work, I’ll stop and grab a cheesecake for after dinner.”

In the sentence above, look at the word cheesecake. Do you notice a difference? Cheesecake has an article in the second sentence but not the first. Why is that?

Prefer to watch this lesson on video? Here’s our full length tutorial on the ‘zero article’:

The Zero Article:

Zero Article Usage Rules

When Using a Generalization with Plural Nouns

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A generalization is a term used to describe a broad statement about a group or an indefinite number of people or things.

Examples of Generalization:

  • I like cars.
  • He builds planes.
  • They engineer solutions.

In the examples, the speaker is making a generalization about an indefinite number of cars, planes, and solutions. In addition, the nouns in the statements are plural. Therefore, the zero article is used.

Examples of Zero Article with Plural Nouns:

  • I’m not a fan of cats, but I do enjoy being around dogs.
  • The supermarket was packed with many loaves of bread.
  • She read many books over the past year.
  • The shipyard was full of boats this season.
  • Our team engineers computer parts for international markets.

When Using a Generalization with an Uncountable Noun

This one is a little easier as uncountable nouns don’t require an article in most situations anyway. Uncountable nouns are always singular in form and apply to abstract items (music, happiness, justice), materials (silver, wood), substances (earth, wind, fire), and many other things.

**Note: Uncountable nouns are also called mass nouns or noncount nouns.**

When you use a generalization with a noncount noun, no article is needed.

Examples of Zero Article with Uncountable Nouns:

  • He works in advertising.
  • I love playing chess on Tuesday afternoons.
  • We have no evidence in this case.

Notice evidence in that last example. There is no article because the sentence mentions no specific evidence. It’s talking about evidence in general.

However, if you make a statement about specific evidence, then an article is necessary.

  • The evidence against him is undeniable.

Use Zero Article With…

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This section identifies many categories of nouns where you’ll use the zero article. Some are easy to spot because they’re capitalized. It’s a broad category but let’s explore some examples:

Names

  • Jerry is a world renowned physicist.
  • Sheldon can recite the alphabet backwards and forwards.
  • Leonard makes funny faces.

Places

  • We’re looking at Jupiter tonight with the telescope.
  • Have you been to Russia?
  • I attended Princeton University.

Street Names

  • He lives on Grey Street.
  • I was never a fan of Elm Street.

Cities

  • I visited Prague when I was a kid.
  • Have you ever been to London?

Days/Months

  • I don’t like Tuesdays.
  • July is my favorite month!

Languages and Academic Subjects

  • I’m studying History.
  • I speak Russian.

Movement or Transport Nouns

Another situation where you won’t use an article is when speaking about movement or taking a transport somewhere. Instead, you’ll use a preposition like by or on.

Examples:

  • I travel to work by train every day.
  • He ran off on foot.
  • We’re traveling to New York by bus.

Routine Places or Institutions

This group of nouns includes well-known or common places where people are frequently located. Again, use no article when you’re making a generalization.

  • I can’t talk right now. I’m in class.
  • Julie is at home.
  • She’s going to work today.
  • The kids are at school.
  • I’m going to bed.

Sports and Games

  • We’re playing basketball tonight.
  • I love football.
  • My grandfather was obsessed with boxing.
  • She loved playing chess as a kid.

Meals

  • Let’s have breakfast tomorrow.
  • John and I are having lunch later on.
  • Would you like to join us for dinner?

Time Phrases

  • I didn’t know she would be there last night.
  • We’ll begin searching at midnight.
  • We took his picture last week.

Exceptions

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There is one notable exception in American English when you should use an article. It’s when you’re talking about the hospital.

  • He’s at the hospital.
  • We’re going to the hospital.
  • Julie had to be carried to the hospital.

Zero Article Exercises

With this list and examples, you should be on your way to properly using the zero article in your writing and speech. It’s a complex topic, so give yourself some time and practice to master this part of English.

Can you think of any other examples of when to use zero article? Leave a comment below!

Jake Pool

Jake Pool

After working in the restaurant industry for over a decade, Jake left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. He now creates content that informs, inspires, and educates ESL students on a wide range of topics. Jake also records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension.
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