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Absence of the article

§ 196. The absence of any article, which is sometimes referred to as the zero article, is as meaningful as their actual use. It is regularly observed with count nouns in the plural, with non-counts used in a general sense, with proper nouns.


§ 197. The indefinite article has no plural form and thus it cannot be used with nouns in the plural in any of its functions.

The plural form without an article corresponds to the classifying and generic uses of the indefinite article and sometimes to the generic use of the definite article.


Jane is a student. A dog barks. A man who has nothing to say has no words. The tiger lives in the jungle. Jane and Mary are students. Dogs bark. Men who have nothing to say have no words. Tigers live in the jungle.


If the idea of number is retained, an indefinite pronoun (some, any, no), adjectives (several, a lot of, many), or a cardinal numeral accompanies the plural noun.


Have you a record teaching English pronunciation?     There grew a cherry-tree once. Have you any records teaching English pronunciation? They have some (several, many, ten) records of the kind. There grew three (some, a lot of) cherry-trees once.


§ 198. Non-count nouns, abstract or material, when used in a general sense, are not preceded by any article, as in:


Time will show who is right.

He has such huge pride.

She said with astonishment, “Where are you, Maurice?”

We walked forward in silence.

They greeted him without enthusiasm.


Premodifiers of abstract non-count nouns do not influence the use of articles, they only restrict the meaning of the noun, as in: history - English history, medieval English history; music - folk music, pop music, classical music; art - modern art, abstract art; weather - nasty weather, fine weather; advice - valuable advice.

He doesn’t love abstract art.


The same refers to material non-counts beautiful silk, Venetian glass, stained glass.

However the indefinite article is used with both kinds of noun if the classifying idea predominates (An English grammar - a kind of it, a soil of it); with words denoting feeling the indefinite article suggests a manifestation of that feeling, with nouns of material a particular kind of the substance mentioned. In contexts of the kind non-counts are usually accompanied by descriptive attributes.


That, sir, was a profound knowledge of man.

He always had a love for the concrete.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t painting with my father standing beside me.

I was no good at football, but does it make an unhappy boyhood?

It is incredible to me that there should be an after life.

She put down the mirror with a feeling of hopelessness.


In nouns which may function as both counts and non-counts the absence of the article indicates a non-count with general meaning, whereas the indefinite article shows that it is a count noun, abstract or concrete.


Compare the meanings in such pairs of nouns as:

Language is a means of communication.

It is always interesting to study a foreign language.

Light is necessary for life.

They saw a light in the distance.


Absence of the article before an originally count noun may suggest a shift in its meaning. Thus in to teach piano (violin) the noun piano means a subject to be taught, just as history, literature, etc., whereas in to play the piano the noun piano denotes a musical instrument with the article in its generic function. In such expressions as to go to school, to be at school the adverbial meaning predominates and the noun loses its nominal quality.

If partition or indefinite amount is meant, it is expressed by an indefinite pronoun (some, any) or a partitive noun (a piece, an item, a bit). With material nouns partitive meaning is also expressed with the help of nouns denoting measure or amount (a cup of tea, a glass of milk, a pint of beer, a slice of bread, a loaf of bread, a spoonful of medicine, a sack of coal, etc.).

All non-counts can be preceded by the definite article in its specifying function. Thus we say the art of the nineteenth century, the music of the Renaissance, the history of England, (but: English history) the history of the Middle Ages, and also: What’s the weather like today? How did you like the music?

Note the difference between English (French, Spanish) literature and the English (French, Spanish) language. Here literature is a non-count, whereas the word language is used as a count noun. The adjectives operate as specifiers restricting the abstract notion of language to one particular language.

Compare also the use of in darkness, in the darkness. The first suggests the state of darkness as such, the second is situationally or contextually determined, as in these two examples: The yard and the lane outside it were in darkness. In the darkness he could discern the figure of the watchman.

§ 199. Proper names point out individual objects. Their individualizing meaning makes the use of an article unnecessary. All proper names of living beings are situationally specified (when we say Tom, Mary, Mrs Brown, Mr Wilson, etc.), for there are hundreds if not thousands of people bearing the same name.

When a proper name is preceded by a modifier no article is used in case the latter denotes a title, relationship, or rank, or if the proper name is accompanied by adjectives which sometimes form part of it: simple Simon, lucky Jim, old Jolyon, young Jolyon, poor Smith, Miss Dodson, Mister Brown, Colonel Pickering, Queen Elisabeth, Professor Jones, President Kennedy, Doctor Manson.

When modified by other adjectives, not commonly used, proper names may take the definite article.

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