When used in the singular, a countable noun is required to have a determiner.

*I bought car.

But the same countable noun is not required to have any determiner when used in the plural.

I bought cars.

Is there any linguistic reason for this?

  • 1
    A common analysis makes the English plural indefinite determiner a zero, in which case there is a determiner. You just can't hear it.
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 22, 2017 at 18:18
  • 2
    Plural indefinite articles are quite tricky crosslinguistically. In English, there's none, it's just a rule of the English grammar. In Spanish, for example, you can use "unos/unas" but then the meaning tends to be "some/several" (though not necessarily but its use is always marked). An interesting case is Carinthian German, they have a generic plural indefinite article.
    – Atamiri
    Nov 22, 2017 at 22:35

4 Answers 4



It is just the rule for English, other languages differ, e.g., Russian and Chinese don't have articles at all (neither definite nor indefinite ones).

  • Who doesn't know it's a rule? I'm asking the reasoning behind the rule.
    – JK2
    Nov 23, 2017 at 3:23
  • @JK2 My emphasis is on for English, not on rule. Other languages differ from English in this respect. Nov 23, 2017 at 11:25
  • 1
    For details in general, Matthew Dryer's articles in WALS on definite and indefinite articles are a good starting point.
    – jlawler
    Nov 23, 2017 at 18:42

The English indefinite article comes from the word for "one" (Old English ān), which, because of its semantics, is somewhat resistant to pluralization. (This resistance is not perfect, however, and pluralization has happened in various cases: cf. Spanish unas personas "some people", Finnish yhdet ihmiset "some/certain people", where unos and yhdet are plural forms of the word meaning "one".)

By contrast, the English definite article comes from a demonstrative pronoun meaning "that", which can be used in the singular or plural, just like most other modifiers.

Therefore, the article-free indefinite plural (people, things, etc.) may be a leftover from the era when English had no articles (a stage that is still partly seen in Old English). Once the definite article became entrenched in English, the indefinite interpretation of article-free plurals may have become automatic (more-or-less) through the process of elimination.


The linguistic reason is that in English a/an is not a determiner, but an indefinite article. Etymologically it the same word as the numeral "one". Its function is to indicate that the following noun designates a single indefinite thing.

  • 3
    Hm... I thought articles were just a subcategory of determiners (most part-of-speech tagsets for English treat it as such) Nov 23, 2017 at 13:25
  • 2
    Articles are just a subcategory of determiner. But names get reused in every different language (you wouldn't believe Swedish articles) and in every different syntactic theory (orthodox chomskyans are required to call noun phrases "determiner phrases" to show their faith, for instance). Don't forget, it's the sentences and their relations with one another that are the data; terminology and designation is arbitrary without testable specifications.
    – jlawler
    Nov 23, 2017 at 18:35

The reason is efficiency. If the detectable omission of any part of speech is done consistently enough, that omission can replace a word. In this case, it is a 'zero article'. The determiner that is omitted is either 'all' or 'some', depending whether the noun is the subject or not, and whether the clause is defining or not.

It could have been done the other way, with the zero article indicating the singular; but 'a[n]' (from 'one') is so minimal already that it would be a shame to trade it for a plural determiner. The count determiner often goes away completely when a definite article is used.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.