The use of the “zero” article depends on both grammar and meaning
THE PROBLEM OF NOUNS WITHOUT “the” OR “a”
Occasionally English speakers use a noun without either of the articles the/a(n). Some grammar books call this the use of the “zero” article. A common error by speakers of other languages, even when they have a very advanced command of English, is making a wrong choice concerning the zero article – omitting the or a(n) when one of them is necessary, or adding one of them when they are both incorrect. This is a particularly likely error among speakers of a mother tongue that does not use articles at all, but it affects most learners of English on some occasions. There is an example of it in the post 138. Test your Command of Grammar.
Part of the reason for the error is undoubtedly differences between English and other languages regarding the use of articles with nouns. However, I am sure that a more important reason is the complicated nature of the English rules, which involve not just meanings but also grammar (as defined in the post 100. What is a Grammar Error?). In this post I wish to clarify the separate influences of grammar and meaning on the use or non-use of a zero article.
THE LINK BETWEEN GRAMMAR AND THE ZERO ARTICLE
Grammar influences the choice of an article before a particular noun through the grammatical category that the noun belongs to. One of these categories is “proper” nouns – nouns which usually begin with a capital letter regardless of their position in a sentence (see 62. Choices with Capital Letters). Many proper nouns normally have to be used without an article, though many others require one (see 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns).
Other nouns are usually categorised as either “countable” or “uncountable”. These are slightly misleading names, since some nouns that dictionaries say are countable represent things that are not obviously able to be counted, and vice versa (see the posts on Noun Countability Clues). The essential difference is that “countable” nouns can be made plural and “uncountable” ones cannot. Although meanings like ability to be counted are not completely useless for indicating whether or not a noun can be made plural, in many cases we just have to find out a noun’s properties from observation or a dictionary.
Knowing whether a noun is countable or uncountable is crucial for correct use of the zero article. The basic rule is that the zero article is possible with uncountable and plural countable nouns but impossible with singular countable nouns. Put another way, singular countable nouns must have the or a(n). This is a fairly universal rule, though exceptions are sometimes found, for example with transport modes after by (e.g. by car – see 73 Ways of Saying How) and in a few idioms (see 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases).
Here is a list of uncountable nouns that have in my experience been used as if they were countable (with either -s or a[n]) by some speakers of other languages than English. I have included some countable nouns among them; readers are invited to decide which they are.
(1) access, (2) accommodation, (3) advice, (4) applause, (5) chaos, (6) damage, (7) drop, (8) equipment, (9) eye-contact, (10) feedback, (11) furniture, (12) guidance, (13) (home)work, (14) information, (15) knowledge, (16) luggage, (17) mail, (18) music, (19) news, (20) progress, (21) punctuation, (22) research, (23) revision, (24) software, (25) system, (26) transport, (27) travel, (28) vocabulary, (29) wealth
The two countable nouns are the seventh and twenty-fifth. Some of the uncountable ones are a problem because they are similar in meaning to nouns that are countable – for an example, see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1, question (d). Yet more nouns give problems because they vary in their countability, depending on their meaning – for numerous examples, see the posts on Noun Countability Clues.
Complicating all of this is the fact that even singular countable nouns, which “must have the or a(n)”, sometimes do not. Abbreviated sentences nearly always leave them out (see 158. Abbreviated Sentences). To understand their absence elsewhere, it is necessary to know about “determiners”. These are a general grammatical category comprising both articles and words that can replace them before a particular noun. Consider the following:
(a) … dictionary is a useful tool for language learning.
The noun dictionary here is singular and countable, which means that not having another word in front is a grammar error. The error can be corrected by writing either the or a in the indicated space. These are not the only possibilities, though. You could, for example, use this instead. Determiners are articles plus all the possibilities that can replace them.
However, not all determiners could go in the space in (a), since some, like enough, go only before plural and uncountable nouns (we can say enough money but not *enough dictionary). Determiners that can go before a singular countable noun include a(n), each, either, every, neither, no, the, this, that, what(ever), which(ever) and whose, as well as the possessive adjectives her, his, my, our, your etc.
As a result of this, the rule for singular countable nouns is more accurately that they must have an appropriate determiner.
THE LINK BETWEEN MEANING AND THE ZERO ARTICLE
With singular countable nouns, meaning does not indicate whether or not to use the zero article: countability – a grammatical property – is key (meaning only determines the choice between the and a or another determiner). With uncountable and plural nouns, however, meaning does have to be taken into account in order to decide whether or not to have the zero article. Two meanings require the zero article, while one requires the (or equivalent determiner).
The two meanings of the zero article with uncountable and plural nouns are the same as the two that singular countable nouns can have with a(n). The first is “generic”, as defined in the post 89. Using “the” with General Meaning”. It can be illustrated as follows:
(b) A dictionary is a useful tool for language learning.
This is not about any particular dictionary but refers to the general class of dictionaries. The other meaning of a(n) might be called “non-generic (unidentified)”. It may be illustrated like this:
(c) A dictionary was located in the Reference Section.
This is about a particular dictionary, but it does not suggest the reader can identify which one, in the way that the dictionary would.
Now compare the way plural and uncountable nouns respectively express these same two meanings with the zero article:
(d) Dictionaries are a useful tool for language learning.
(d) Technology is a useful tool for language learning.
(f) Dictionaries were located in the Reference Section.
(g) Technology is available for language learning this week.
Thus, to sum up, the zero article (or, more precisely, the absence of a determiner) is always wrong before singular countable nouns but sometimes right before plural and uncountable nouns, depending on the meaning that they have. This can be expressed in diagram form as follows:
The meaning that makes the zero article wrong with plural and uncountable nouns is one that is usually expressed by the: non-generic but “identified” rather than “unidentified”, as in this example:
(h) Parts of the brain have been mapped but the knowledge leaves many questions unanswered.
Here, the knowledge is non-generic because it is not all knowledge – only knowledge of parts of the brain – and it is “identified” because the idea of parts of the brain has already been mentioned earlier. A zero article is not possible before knowledge with this meaning because it would mean all knowledge (generic).
An even more common error than omitting a necessary the before a plural or uncountable noun is adding the when the meaning is generic. English (unlike many other languages) nearly always has a zero article for generic plural and uncountable nouns, reserving the for its non-generic use. Repetition of uncountable/plural nouns with generic meaning makes no difference: the normal need for the with repeated nouns does not apply. Even singular countable nouns rarely use the to express generic meaning, preferring a(n) – though exceptions are more common (see 89. Using “the” with General Meaning).
PRACTICE EXERCISE (ZERO ARTICLES)
Say which of the underlined nouns in the following text have no determiner. Then identify the determiner that each of the other nouns has. Answers are given below.
Some people think that it is better if English teachers speak English as their first or native language. However, this belief very quickly raises all sorts of problems. Not speaking English as a first language brings numerous benefits for anybody who eventually succeeds in becoming an English teacher. Two of the major strengths that non-native English speakers usually have, which compensate for any “foreign” ways of pronouncing or writing English, are a much better ability to explain English grammar, and a much better understanding of just what it is like to be a learner of English as a Foreign Language.
Nouns with No Determiner (all plural/uncountable with generic meaning): teachers, English, problems, speakers, grammar.
Determiners: their … language; this … belief; a … language; an … teacher; the … strengths; any … ways; a … ability; a … understanding; a … learner.