As is well known, under certain circumstances in English, there can be acceptable noun phrases (NPs) that lack a determiner. Some cases include:

(i) "indefinite uncountable nominals" (There is water everywhere)
(ii) "indefinite plurals" (We are students)
(iii) (some) "proper names" (John is a friend of mine)
(iv) "predicate nominals denoting offices held by single individuals" (She just became Queen)
(v) "meals" (Dinner is served)
(vi) "means of transportation" (We'll go by boat)
(vii) "media" (We communicated by email.)
(viii) "time of day and night" (We'll go at noon)
(ix) "seasons" (Winter is on its way out)
(x) "illnesses" (Rubella is preventable)
(xi) "indications of status" (They are off target)
(xii) "activities linked to locations" (She's at school)
(xiii) "repeated nouns" (We need to do this face to face)
(xiv) "matched nouns" (We examine the roles of mother and child).

Sources: L. Berezowski, The Myth of the Zero Article (Continuum, London, 2009), pp. 12-23
              R. Huddleston and G. K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 2002), pp. 409-410.

Some authors say that the nouns in boldface take the "zero article."

But before I proceed, I should point out that many authors do not. For example, neither McCawley (The Syntactic Phenomena of English) nor Huddleston and Pullum (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) use the concept of the "zero article." They instead prefer the word "bare": bare N' for McCawley and bare nominal for Huddleston and Pullum.

Different attitudes towards the concept of the "zero article"

1. Merely a stylistic alternative to "no article"

For some of these authors, the concept of the "zero article" doesn't do much conceptual work. For these authors, the statement "this noun is preceded by a zero article" simply means "this noun is not preceded by any determiner," and nothing more.

2. Drawing distinction between "no article" and "zero article", or more than one kind of "zero article"

Other authors take the concept of the "zero article" more seriously.

In A Comprehensive Grammar Of The English Language by Quirk et al. (1985), for example, we find (5.2)

Although in sentences such as I like music, I like Sid, the two nouns look superficially alike in terms of article usage, we will say that music has ZERO ARTICLE but that Sid has NO ARTICLE. The label 'zero' is appropriate in the case of common nouns which have article contrast, eg: music as opposed to the music (cf 5.52ff) in:

I like music and dancing.
I think the music is too loud in here.

If, however, we disregard special grammatical environments like the Sid I mean is tall (cf 5.64), proper nouns have no article contrast *(Sid/the Sid), and will therefore be said to have 'no article'.

Other authors go even further. A well-know account by Chesterman from 1991 posits that there are in fact two kinds of "zero article," which he calls the "zero article" and the "null article," and that there is the following continuum between the two:

     zero (Ø1)--some--a--the--null (Ø2)

(A lot of people seem to come to this via "Acquisition of the zero and null articles in English" by P. Master.)

3. Explicit rejection of the concept

On the other hand, there are authors who are equally serious in rejecting any role for the concept of the "zero article"; see, for example, The Myth of the Zero Article by L. Berezowski.


What is the status of the "zero article" (and/or the "null" article or similar concepts) in English in contemporary linguistics? Is it a matter of controversy, or has the field by now largely accepted a certain point of view on this?


Tim Osborne has pointed out in the comments that anyone who accepts the DP-hypothesis—by all accounts, a sizeable chunk of linguisits—is committed to the existence of the zero or null article.

Let me therefore narrow the scope of my question a bit.

Question (Updated)

I would like to know the views (about the zero/null article in English) of those linguists/grammarians whose main interest is really English grammar, rather than some more universal question about human languages. For example, this group would (among others) include the people who might at some point be tempted to write a comprehensive grammar of the English language.

Now, these people will, of course, have theoretical commitments. I would like to know the views of those of them who accept/work with some kind of constituency grammar, but who don't accept the DP-hypothesis (because if they do accept it, then we already know that they take the zero article very seriously).

  • 1
    Much of mainstream phrase structure syntax (the tradition initiated by Chomsky in 1957) relies heavily on a zero/null article in English. The stance adopted is that given a nominal group, there is always a determiner present, either overt or covert. This assumption is the only way the DP-hypothesis can be made to work. There are, though, many grammarians who are likely to reject such null elements, e.g. construction grammarians, dependency grammarians, etc. I therefore think that the issue remains one of controversy. Jun 26 at 12:01
  • @TimOsborne In the part of the mainstream that relies on the zero/null article in English, is it usually taken that there is only one kind of the zero article, or is there usually more than one kind? Jun 26 at 19:15
  • 3
    To my knowledge, just one kind, but they remain rather abstract in the area. The debates that do occur concern the position that the determiner appears in when it does appear, e.g. in the D head position or in the specifier position. When there is no overt determiner, the null/zero determiner appears in the D head position. Any time you see "DP" written, the author is assuming a null/zero determiner in cases when there is no overt determiner present. The grammarians that reject null/zero determiners tend to assume the traditional NP analysis of nominal groups instead. Jun 27 at 22:54
  • @TimOsborne Yes, so null or zero determiner boil down to the same thing. I see no point to having two categories.
    – Lambie
    Jun 29 at 14:42


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