In my native language, we can say:

I have dog

Because I don't want to say a dog (one dog, how many dogs) or the dog (that dog, the listener don't care which dog).

p.s. after 3 years later, I have to say, why I ask this question, is I still cannot grasp how to use the right 'article word'. sometimes, a noun will use an article, sometimes, a noun could not(or omit) the article word before it. there aren't a formula for this. So, I have to remember all the time! I feel so frustrate

  • 3
    And in one of my native languages, I can say "Have dog" or "I dog"... This is so confusing! Seriously though, I'd like to see what kind of answers this receives. +1
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 27, 2011 at 13:26
  • 2
    Japanese also has no articles. Nor does it distinguish number unless that is essential. 犬を飼っている [inu (w)o ka'te iru] (literally, "dog(s) keeping" or "dog(s) raising") is how one would announce dog ownership. It is not even necessary to specify who is the owner; it would be understood from context. A recent article (no pun intended) on Zapanet announced "iPhoneユーザーの50%は犬を飼っているんだって!" ["50% of iPhone users reportedly own dog(s)"]. Yet still the single kanji for dog (犬) is used. The point, as @Kosmonaut points out, is that each language has its own semantic structure.
    – Robusto
    Jan 27, 2011 at 14:58
  • 2
    @RegDwight: Russian, right? I wonder if there is any language if one can elide further, express dog-ownership with just “Dog!” (possibly suitably inflected).
    – PLL
    Jan 27, 2011 at 16:40
  • 3
    @PLL: well, to some extent, this is actually possible in Russian. You can express "It is raining." by saying "Rain." or "Rains."; "It's cold outside." is simply "Outside cold."; "There are three cars in the garage" is "In garage three cars."; "I am tired." is simply "Tired." and that single word contains information about whether the speaker is male or female.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 27, 2011 at 17:42
  • 4
    Why do people think their own language is logical, and other languages (which differ in some way) are not?
    – GEdgar
    Aug 19, 2012 at 20:05

7 Answers 7


Well, first of all, we don't need an article before any noun. I can say:

I like dogs.

As to your question of why, the answer is, "because that is how English works".

The articles perform a discourse function, by indicating new and old information. They often evolve from demonstratives (e.g. "this" and "that"). They evolve independently in unrelated languages. Normally, once an article system becomes a part of a language, it is an all-or-nothing thing. This is not unlike a verbal inflection system, a gender system, or a case system; once the system is in place, it is not optional.

Aside from this, there isn't really a more concrete reason for "why" English works this way.

  • 2
    @lovespring: There is no evidence to indicate that English is losing its article system. In any case, it wouldn't change that significantly within our lifetimes.
    – Kosmonaut
    Jan 27, 2011 at 14:58
  • 3
    +1: I would be curious if you know examples where article use has been dropped in a language over time, the way inflections and cases have in some languages. I've read that languages trend toward simplification during the course of their evolution; are articles a linguistic "frill" that tends to get trimmed over time?
    – Robusto
    Jan 27, 2011 at 15:05
  • 1
    @lovespring: "I have one or more dogs."
    – Kosmonaut
    Jan 27, 2011 at 15:31
  • 3
    @Robusto: They are clearly not necessary, as many languages do not have them. But many languages have developed them: French and Spanish, for example. So, I wouldn't say flat-out that languages trend toward overall simplification, but that there are clearly things that are more likely to come and go, such as a case system, as opposed to, say, adjectives. As to your question, I can't think of any languages losing their article system, but I think it must have happened. It's an interesting question!
    – Kosmonaut
    Jan 27, 2011 at 15:53
  • 3
    @lovespring: Some things are optional in one language but not another — that's just how it is. In English, if I am talking on the phone, and I am not sure if the other person is male or female, I can avoid it; in Arabic, there are two words for "you": masculine and feminine. So I would have to make a guess (or never say "you")!
    – Kosmonaut
    Jan 27, 2011 at 16:01

I could just as easily flip this around and say, why does your native language not use articles? To me:

I have dog

Isn't specific enough. Do you have one dog? Multiple dogs? A specific dog?

My point is, different languages have different rules, which make sense to native speakers because that's what they're used to. Consequently languages with different rules make less sense.

  • Well, in most languages without articles I know, nouns have tenses, so "I have dog" clearly refers to a single dog, and not multiple dogs. Jan 27, 2011 at 14:12
  • @ShreevatsaR: So one could theorize that since English doesn't have tenses to clarify quantity 0, 1, or many, we have to use articles. Neither necessarily better just a different mechanism.
    – grieve
    Jan 27, 2011 at 14:48
  • @ElendilTheTall If you say you got a dog. but you don't want to tell how many dogs, then what will you say?
    – lovespring
    Jan 27, 2011 at 15:07
  • 1
    @ShreevatsaR: Most languages you know without articles may express number, but that is not all languages. Chinese and Japanese are two examples of languages which do not express number as a grammatical category (of course there are ways to express it if you do need to be specific)
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 27, 2011 at 15:21
  • 1
    No, technically it's not: You do have a girlfriend. You also have others. It might be considered a lie of omission, but so might leaving out the article altogether. In any case, does your language not have plurals? Does 'girl' not imply one girl and 'girls' imply multiple girls?
    – user3444
    Jan 27, 2011 at 16:21

In some languages it's not necessary to use articles before a noun. Persian and Turkish are the examples. For example:

I have dog.

It means that I have a dog. So not using an article before a singular noun is similar to using an article. Also they can use other kinds of articles after the noun.

In these languages: I have dog. = I have a dog.

But in some other languages like English and Arabic you should use an article before a noun to make it clear and specific. Otherwise it's not clear for the reader. So I think that depends on the language.


This is not an answer to the question about English articles; but it seems from comments that you may actually be more interested in how to say you keep an unspecified number of dogs. So, some alternative ways one could achieve that:

  • Make a more specific statement mentioning one dog:

[Showing someone a photo.] This is my dog Bruno.

  • Make a statement going covering a wide time period:

I’ve owned dogs for about ten years now.

(This implies you’ve had more than one dog in total, but leaves open how many you own now.)

  • Make a statment which is not directly about the dogs you own, but implies their existence:

Oh, damn! I forgot to buy dog food today!

I’m definitely a dog person! I’d get really lonely living without a dog.


English doesn't require an article before a noun. I can write:

Visitors are welcome everyday.
I like pizza.
He knew Latin and Greek.

In English, it is not possible to say you have dogs without to say if it's only one dog, or they are many dogs. Even if you would say I have my dog, that would be interpreted as you have one dog.


after 3 years later, I have to say, why I ask this question, is I still cannot grasp how to use the right 'article word'. sometimes, a noun will use an article, sometimes, a noun could not(or omit) the article word before it. there aren't a formula for this.

There is actually a "formula" for how to use articles in English. There are a set of rules that have evolved for when a definite or indefinite article is appropriate. Yes, there are special cases; but it's not as difficult as say, memorizing the gender of nouns in some Romance languages.

You can determine which article to place in front of almost any noun by answering three questions:

1. Is the noun countable or uncountable?

A noun is countable if you can have more than one instance of it. I can have three apples, so apple is a countable noun. Luggage is an uncountable noun. Many words can have different countable and uncountable meanings.

2. Is it singular or plural?

Just ask the question: am I referring to more than one instance of something?

3. Is it definite or indefinite?

A noun is definite if it is clear what specific thing you are referring to. Otherwise it is indefinite.

After you answer those questions you can determine which article to use with this table:

                          definite      indefinite
countable singular        the           a, an
countable plural          the           (don't use an article)
uncountable               the           (don't use an article)

Notice the rule of thumb: if the noun is definite, use the article the; if it is indefinite it never takes the article the.

Here's some examples given on that University of Toronto page I referenced:

countable singular definite

I need to study hardest for the exam that I write next Wednesday.

countable singular indefinite

I have an exam to write this afternoon, and then my summer holiday finally begins.

countable plural definite

The exams that I wrote last year were much easier.

countable plural indefinite

Exams are an inescapable fact of life for most university students.

uncountable singular definite

The importance of studying hard cannot be exaggerated.

uncountable singular indefinite

Do not attach importance to memorizing facts.

There are several special cases in the use of the definite article. I won't go into detail here, but they have to do with special classes of nouns and modified nouns. The rules are actually pretty regular with only a few edge-cases.

  • It is clear what I am referring to in the following sentences. Yet, the noun is indefinite: An ugly black cat is on the table and Look, there's a full moon out tonight.
    – pazzo
    Oct 13, 2014 at 20:47

A colleague of mine and I created a set of grammar materials when we taught high school. This is an excerpt:


A general statement is a statement about a category of items in the world. When making a general statement, we do not use an article at all.

- With plurals

When we say, for example, I love dogs, we are making a general statement about a category of animal. When we say, I hate vegetables, we are again making a general statement about a food category. Both of these sentences are general statements with plurals; dogs is a plural noun and vegetables is a plural noun, and we are not referring to any specific dogs or vegetables. We are referring to the category of dogs and vegetables. Thus, we do not use an article.


Cats are unfriendly. There are too many cars on the road. There are pencils for sale at the store. I love to put posters on my wall.

*** o   With uncountables**

We also make general statements with uncountable nouns. When we say, I love music, we are making a general statement with an uncountable noun, music. When we say, I hate homework, we are making a general statement with the uncountable noun, homework. In both cases, we are not referring to any specific music or homework so they are considered general statements with uncountables. We, therefore, do not use an article.


Information is available at the library. Pollution is destroying the earth. Homework is boring.


We use the when we have specified the plural or uncountable. In other words, use the when we know exactly which item(s) or object(s) we are discussing.

*** o   Specified plurals** 

When we say, I love the movies made by Steven Spielberg, we use the because we know which movies. They are the movies made by Steven Spielberg. When we say, the police officers in Richmond are very professional, we use the because we have specified which police officers.


The boats in Vancouver Harbour are protected from storms. I like to visit the whales in the aquarium. Many people like the activities available in Vancouver. The courses offered at UBC are numerous and varied.

Specified uncountables

When we say, the homework from Math class is easy, we have used the because we have specified which homework. It is the homework from Math class. When we say, the pollution created by the local pulp mill is making people sick, we have used the, because we have specified which pollution. It is the pollution created by the local pulp mill.


The vocabulary from English class seems easy, but it's not. The information that I received from the government is useful. The ice-cream made by my friends is always good. I want to see the jewelry that my friend bought yesterday.

Note: Never use a or an before a plural or an uncountable noun.


When we have one item, and we cannot identify and thus specify it, we use a or an in front of it. This is a general statement with a single unspecified noun. When we say, I want to buy a cat, we use a because there is only one cat, and we do not know which cat. In this case, the word cat is a single unspecified noun. When we say, I would like a bike, we use a because there is only one bike, and we do not know which bike it is. In other words, bike is a single unspecified noun. Single unspecified nouns are preceded by a or an.


There is a cat on the road. A dog is difficult to care for. May I have a drink please? I do not have a pen. Please bring me a tissue.


When we know exactly which single item we are talking about, it is specified, and we use the in front of it. When we say, the dog that lives next door barks all of the time, we know exactly which dog it is; when we say, I bought the car that John used to own, we know exactly which car it is. Hence, we must use the before the specified noun.

The pen on the floor is mine. The movie that is playing at 10 pm is sold out. The car that is parked under the street lamp is Jack’s.

  • Welcome to EL&U. Thanjs for this contribution; however, please remember that this is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site, and the question asks why the article system exists, not how to use it.
    – choster
    May 13, 2018 at 20:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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