Consider the highlighted nouns below.

Empire is not always a good thing. (The burden of empire, like its benefit, was not equitably shared.)

Some great apes have theory of mind. (Theory may tell us one thing, but practice teaches us another.)

Using force to chastize one's own ally is not war.

Man is the measure of all things.

And compare:

We lost an empire, but won a market.

Darwin proposed a theory.

In a war of attrition, you need a force equal to those of your foe and the "neutral" noncombatants combined.

I saw a man.

To the top line, please also add this from Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai by Robert Bickers (emphasis added).

But one thing which does strike one is that Maurice Tinkler took empire too seriously. In The Road to Wigan Pier, former imperial policeman George Orwell wrote about the fact that every imperialist knew that the rhetoric of empire was all airy fluff at heart, and that empire was the brute fact of power. . . . For Tinkler, it wasn't merely that empire was the geopolitical status quo. . . .


Is there a term in grammar or linguistics for the type of "bare" nouns (those without an article) shown in the first two sentences (i.e. empire and theory)?

It could be a term unique to English grammar or applicable to the phenomenon in any language.


If the question is perfectly clear, you don't have to read this background.

What I mean by the "phenomenon":

It seems to me that empire and theory are different from force and war.

With force and war, they seem to have two established usages, countable and uncountable. As a result, saying, "Using force to chastize one's own ally is not war," may not amount to a special adaptation. (If you are wondering, the sentiment is from the Peloponnesian War.)

But with empire and theory, it seems perhaps the countable use is better established, and the "bare" instances may therefore look like a special adaptation. (Theory of mind here means one ape's attribution of mind to another ape as in: "Oh, he doesn't know the panther is coming. I should warn him.")

Anyway I'm not insisting that my characterization is accurate. I am only trying to bring out the difference a little bit.

As for man I don't know where that comes from. We don't say, "Lion is a mammal."

What I'd like to know:

If there is a standard term for cases like empire and theory, that's what I'd like to know.

If not, terms to include some broader range of "bare" nouns would also help.

If not, I would appreciate pointers (e.g. Internet links) to standard treatments of the phenomenon, again whether for English or not.

If you are a grammarian or linguist and proceed to give an account of it right here, deny that it exists (i.e. empire and theory are no different from force and war), etc. that too would be appreciated. But in that case, please tell me your qualifications (degree, teaching post, etc.).

If empire, theory, force and war are all doing the same thing, I would still like to know the standard terms of discourse. Thanks!


I have supplied other examples for top two lines (those in parentheses and the long quote) in response to comments received. I hope at least some of them may be grammatical.

  • 2
    I find your examples with empire and theory both of dubious grammaticality. I can only make sense of the theory one if "Theory of mind" is being treated as a sort of proper noun. A pair of words for "with/without article" is "arthrous/anarthrous".
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 7, 2016 at 11:57
  • Just as an aside, Colin, is this parallel to something like 'presence of mind' to you? Jun 7, 2016 at 12:21
  • Curiously enough, it occurs to me that water, for instance, is a sort of proper noun if we allow that a proper name is a name given to one thing and no other. The species HOH has that name, and no other. In the same way, when we say benefit of empire we may be thinking of the species, of which this or that particular empire is an instance. (Of course, many people are called Chris etc., but I think we can tweak the idea of given to one thing and no other so it survives this objection.)
    – user10711
    Jun 7, 2016 at 13:05
  • If the examples are all ungrammatical, I think that's OK too. The question would say: Grammatical or no, here's a tendency or type of use. What did linguists have to say about it?
    – user10711
    Jun 7, 2016 at 14:05
  • I just encoutered this question which is related to yours and might contain helpful hints, although the question is not exactly the same. Jun 11, 2016 at 15:12

1 Answer 1


Hm, the closet terms I could think of are:

  • generic interpretation (as oppsed to "accidental interpretation", at least I guess that is what you would call the opposite), which rather seems to apply to concrete and countable nouns though: She bakes bread (in general, e.g. as a profession, vs. a specific cake in a concrete situation: She bakes the bread)
  • non-discrete nouns (Haegman & Guéron, p. 55), which don't allow for pluralisation (like * hatreds, * justices as compared to the loves, several charities, which are also abstract but still to some extend countable in an appropriate context) - but obviously, wars or theories is grammatically acceptable
  • Haegeman & Guéron (p. 67) also, like you, use the term bare noun in combination with non-overt determiners; but their examples rather seem to apply for non-abstract entities used as an NP with an empty determiner (like in Women are ambitious)

The latter two are taken from: Haegeman, L. & Guéron, Jacqueline (1999). English Grammar. A generative perspective.

So maybe the words you mentioned are something like nouns which can act as both discrete and non-discrete abstract nouns, or receive both an accidental (?) or a generic interpretation, but still, I'm not sure this fits your example too well and also don't know of a unique term for it.

Interesting question though, I'd be curious if there is any deeper research on precisely that difference.

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