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I’ve been reading much about the US poverty war recently. Some people say:

He declared the war on poverty fifty years ago.

But others say:

He declared war on poverty fifty years ago.

Should one use an article before the word war?

It is really hard for an English learner to master the usage of articles.

For me, it is weird to leave a countable noun with no article, an example being war.

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    When you use the idiom declare war, there is no article. For example, "Prussia declared war on France". You can also declare bankruptcy, without an article. For most other uses of war, you need an article. (Another exception: you go to war, like you go to school and go to work.) – Peter Shor Jan 14 '14 at 22:57
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    And 'war' need not be a count noun (though it may be). 'Peace' is not used as a count noun anywhere near as much. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 14 '14 at 23:05
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On Articles in English: Definite, Indefinite, and Zero

To declare war on something is an instance of zero-article marking in English, which is triggered by any of several circumstances. It’s like how there may be three schools in your town, but when you speak of your children being at school, no article should be used. These three all mean slightly different things:

  • My kids are at school.
  • My kids are at the school.
  • My kids are at a school.

Zero-article usage varies in between different regional dialects of English. In the United States, one normally speaks of going to the hospital or going to the university (but not going to college, oddly enough), while just a few miles north of the Canadian border spoken by people with no discernible accent difference from the first set, you will often as not find those particular articles dropped.

You can also see variation in article choice between individual speakers from the same region, or even the same speaker in different utterances.

  • I want to grow up to be president.
  • I’m now president / I’m now the president.

  • I’m boss around these here parts, and don’t you forget it.

  • I’m the new boss around here.

I’m afraid your question is too broad to be wholly answered in the Stack Exchange Q&A format, because it is subtle, somewhat complex and quirky, and because native speakers themselves are seldom aware of the actual “rules” under which they are operating.

The best way, really the only way, to pick up this sort of thing is by constant exposure to the quirks of usage displayed by native speakers themselves. After all, that’s how they learned it themselves.


Other Ruminations

Getting the knack of knowing when to use or not use articles can be especially difficult for English language learners. As I’m about to show, this can happen even when coming from a language closely allied to English. for those coming from languages with no articles at all, it can be a complete mystery altogether.

However, just because two different languages have articles doesn’t mean they use them the same way. This is easily observed when comparing article usage in English versus in a neighboring language from the Germanic or Romance families. Those language do have articles, but just what triggers or suppresses article use is quite often a bit different from how it works in English.

In Romance, for example, when you declare what profession you’re in, you don’t use an article.

  • English: I’m a teacher.
  • Spanish: Soy profesora.

Similarly for where you’re from, etc.

  • English: I’m a Quebecker.
  • French: Je suis Québécois.

Or JFK’s famous gaff where due to his accidental word-for-word translation into German, he came off sounding like a bismark:

  • English: I’m a Berliner.
  • German: Ich bin Berliner.

So even coming from neighboring languages, it’s hard for English language learners to always get it right.

That’s partly because of their native proclivities, but partly because of the variation within English itself, as occurs here with your case of war: with some words, the article is possible but not obligatory, and dropping it changes the meaning a bit.

As with your war case, sometimes more than one way of phrasing it is possible, such as how the line from the famous song “La Bamba” can translate from having no articles in Spanish into noun phrases with articles in English:

  • Spanish: Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán:
  • English¹: I’m not a sailor, I’m the captain.

That’s a good example because it allows for an alternate, zero-article translation as well:

  • English²: I’m no sailor, I’m captain.

Understanding the difference may lie at the heart of what is bothering you with war versus the war. There in the song, leaving out the article in the version English makes the noun a more abstract thing, which is just what is going on with your war situation. (Technically, the no there also functions as a determiner, which is what an article is, too.)

You point out war as being a count noun. This is true in some situations and not in others. When one observes that Germany and France had three wars in the space of three-quarters of a century (1870–1945), or when one speaks of “the war to end all wars”, one is clearly thinking of war as a discrete thing, something countable and separate.

However, when one speaks of going to war, being at war, in open war, making war upon another, or a reason for war, it is not the same notion because it is no longer talking about one or another individual instance. It has been made into a condition, a state of being.

Being in a state of war is like (well, syntactically) being in a state of bliss: it takes no article, being used now as an abstract noun not a discrete one.

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"He declared the war on poverty fifty years ago."

"He declared war on poverty fifty years ago."

These two sentences are both correct. They just stress different parts of the sentence. In the first sentence "war" is the subject noun, and "on poverty" is an adjective. In the second sentence, however, "poverty" is the subject noun, and "declared war" is a verb.

  • You need to give an authority supporting your claim that 'declare war' is / may be considered a (multi-word) verb. I'd also like to know what you mean by 'subject noun' – some might call 'the war' and 'war' objects here (though I'd prefer the idiom analysis for 'declared war'). – Edwin Ashworth Jan 14 '14 at 23:12
  • I disgree. True, Google Books claims 206 instances of "he declared the war on", but there are actually only 27 in total, and most of those are "accidental collocations" anyway. I'm not going to check all the claimed 124,000 instances of "he declared war on", but it's pretty clear that idiomatically, including the is a vanishingly unlikely usage. – FumbleFingers Jan 14 '14 at 23:25
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    @FF Some wars achieve 'definite status': 'Nothing is better than before the war on poverty was declared.' 'The Great War'... And from the first example, 'declare' can accept a noun group (eg 'the war on poverty'), just as 'declare war' can accept a prepositional (on-) phrase. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 14 '14 at 23:33
  • Well, it is much more common to "declare a war" on an enemy country, than to declare "the war on an enemy country". – Fatima Jan 15 '14 at 3:11

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