I'm used to always hearing or seeing a definite article before certain nouns. Yet on certain occasions the article is totally omitted, and it bothers me. I'm wondering what the justification for omitting the article is, especially when the definite article would seem to be required, or if it is just bad English either on the part of the individual in question or more likely by tradition.

The most frequent place I hear this is at the doctor or dentist's office. In every one I have ever visited, the receptionist or assistant always says things like "Doctor will see you shortly" instead of "The doctor will see you shortly."

The wikipedia article linked above says this: "A definite article indicates that its noun is a particular one (or ones) identifiable to the listener". In the case of a clinical setting, I know who the doctor is, especially if this is not my first visit. The people in the office know the doctor even better than I, so it would seem to be inappropriate to omit the article. Even the indefinite article would be incorrect. It further says, under "Zero article": "In languages having a definite article, the lack of an article specifically indicates that the noun is indefinite." Since the noun is not indefinite, why are they omitting the article?

Another place I see the article omitted is with the word "bar". Bartenders apparently don't say "I tend the bar" they say "I tend bar". Unless a bartender works in multiple bars, it would seem like an article would be required. Furthermore, "the bar" can mean any bar a person goes to, so even in a case like this question, it seems like the word "the" should be in the sentence. The only thing I can think of in this case is maybe the speaker doesn't want to confuse the listener into thinking they work in the legal field.

Is this just a bad habit, a historical corruption or tradition, or is there really a valid reason (or perhaps more than one) for these omissions?

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    Do you have any other examples? I don't see a pattern that could be commented upon. Tend bar is a set phrase— bartenders aren't necessarily tending to the bar when they're tending bar. As for the receptionist, it sounds like Doctor is short for the name— Doctor Singh will see you now or Doctor Hernandez will see you now. – choster Apr 15 '15 at 21:18
  • I observed in a "convenience store" this morning that a clerk said, over the intercom to the gas pumps, "Go ahead pump 4. Please pay inside when you're done." Only that's not what she actually said. Rather, it was something like "Gwed pump 4 -- leesay inzide ben verdun". It wasn't that she was incapable speaking perfectly normal American English, but rather she said that phrase about 200 times a day and hence said it without actually thinking about what words were being said -- she just moved her mouth out of habit. – Hot Licks Nov 18 '15 at 21:00
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    But saying "I tend bar" is perfectly valid, when stating one's occupation. – Hot Licks Nov 18 '15 at 21:01
  • With (both) your examples, I think that Barmar's 'set phrase' (idiom) analysis is relevant. Neither 'I tend a bar', 'I tend bars' nor 'I tend the bar' sounds too natural, so the expression has developed as it is. But note that this is idiosyncratic; we don't say 'I sweep street' or 'I manage bank'. Barmar does give some other examples, such as 'I deliver mail'. With 'Doctor will see you now', there seems to be a conflation of title and job description, perhaps to put things on a more friendly, less clinical (sorry) basis. Again, note ... – Edwin Ashworth Jan 19 at 23:53
  • that 'Surgeon / Consultant / Dentist / Professor / Manager / King / Secretary ...' cannot be used without an article here. But, in line with my edit, in addition to various idiosyncratic verbo-nominal set phrases (weigh anchor, catch fire, break camp, bear fruit, buy time ...) I'm sure that there are more general situations (of more than one type) where no article is a possible or even preferable choice. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 19 at 23:54
up vote 5 down vote accepted

In the first example, Doctor is being used as the name of the person; the doctor is more of a descriptive phrase. It's short for Doctor <his name>.

tend bar is a set phrase, it's a synonym for being a bartender. It's also similar to the way other people describe their work: a mailman could say I deliver mail, a programmer would say I write code, a garbageman would say I collect garbage, and a composer would say I write music. These are all using the noun to refer to the general concept, rather than any specific item, so no article is needed. You would add an article when you need to be specific, e.g. I write the music in TV commercials.

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    Your examples suggest bar is a mass noun, but I don't believe it functions as such— the entire phrase refers to an activity. It's more like saying I play ball than I write music. – choster Apr 15 '15 at 21:25
  • @choster There are varying degrees of cohesiveness in these verb + noun strings. They're very hard to categorise accurately. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 20 at 0:40
  • @EdwinAshworth True. My last example would be perfectly fine if it were I write music in TV commercials and a mailman could say I deliver the mail. – Barmar Jan 20 at 0:42
  • And we've had the 'He's in hospital / *'He's in infirmary' / 'He's in theatre' / *'He's in ward' kerfuffle. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 20 at 0:57
  • @EdwinAshworth Those are also AmEn vs BrEn differences. We don't say "in hospital" here in America. – Barmar Jan 20 at 1:00

(Adapted from my answer on English Language Learners to a similar question, following a request to migrate that answer to English Language & Usage and discussion on Meta.)

Let's look at a concrete example before going deeper.

Consider someone who calls himself Cookie Monster.

Saying that he is a cookie monster conveys the idea that there is a group of entities that are each called cookie monster, and he is one of them.

Saying that he is the cookie monster conveys either that the 'group' of entities really has only one member (him), or that he is the most outstanding member of the group.

In each case, the focus is on some kind of classification scheme.

Saying that he is cookie monster says something about him personally - he really enjoys cookies, eat them messily, etc.


It's a similar case with your bar example. "I tend bar" uses the null article, as distinct from the zero article. (Your doctor example works differently. A regionalism is at play here, using Doctor as a proper noun instead of using a common noun with determiner, 'the doctor'. I don't address this at length here.)

The zero article is the most indefinite article, and the null article is the most definite. Peter Master arranges articles in order from most indefinite to most definite:

zero (Ø1)--some--a--the--null (Ø2)
- Peter Master, "Acquisition of the Zero and Null Articles in English", Issues in Applied Linguistics, 14(1)

Here's an example of the zero article and null article from the same paper:

  • Zero article: The boys ate chicken.
  • Null article: Mr. Jones was appointed chairman.

The null article example has a similar quality to your "mayor" example.

Note that both zero article and null article refer to something that is absent from the sentence. It can seem a little odd to describe something missing as potentially having two polar opposite possibilities. Masters goes on to say:

The zero and null articles can be readily distinguished by their paraphrasability by either an indefinite or a definite article, respectively

That is, if the sentence retains its sense when you insert an indefinite article, the original had a zero article. And if it retains its sense when you insert a (the) definite article, the original had a null article.

In your example, "I tend bar" uses the word bar in the same manner that "Mr. Jones was appointed chairman" uses the word chairman. It uses the null article.

  • "I tend a bar", "I tend the bar"? Hmm. Not sure about that one. – Araucaria Jun 21 at 17:25
  • @Araucaria Interestingly, the indefinite article can refer to a more definite bar than the definite article, depending on how "the bar" is intended to be understood. :) – Lawrence Jun 22 at 5:22

'Zero article' applies to class nouns, not proper nouns. Titles are class nouns that can be used as proper nouns. 'Doctor' can be used as a title, although you are less likely to hear the nurse say "I'll get Doctor for you."

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