love between husband and wife

What is the reason that there is no article (e.g. "love between a husband and a wife") in the above? Has some kind of a rule been identified grammatically when it comes to such a case? If I were to guess I think it's because the indefinite article 'a', the purpose of that, is taking a generic sample (or 'instance') from a 'class' (the class of husbands), but in the above sentence you want to refer to the class itself... the husband class and the wife class... and not an 'instance' of them, because it just is more to the point. Do you think this is a fair reasoning? Also, a thought came to me that with the use of the indefinite article, you get a generic husband and a generic wife, which, may not necessarily love each other (for they are not a specific pair of a specific husband and a specific wife who in fact love each other).

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    It is used a great deal in those cases where the generic is the main point of the idiomatic phrase, and especially it's used where there are either a lot of instances, or durability through time, or both (in golf - "He hits straight between tee and green", or "She divides her time equally between town and country.").
    – Cargill
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 3:26
  • 2
    Congratulations! You've answered your own question! Don Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 6:54
  • The missing words are 'any' [husband] and 'that husband's' [wife]. Since the intention is to determine the universals, null determiners can be used.
    – AmI
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 1:04
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    @Josh61 Thanks for the compliment. Linguistics wouldn't allow this question on there, because it's about English. Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 14:02
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    @Araucaria - I see, that's why every time I try to post a question there, they chase me away like the pleague. :))..my fault.
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 14:06

3 Answers 3


Bare Coordination

This phenomenon is one that is not at all well understood, and also one which is currently the subject of much academic research. It is an example of Bare Coordination. This is when coordinated noun phrases (NPs) which we would otherwise expect to take a determiner of some description appear "bare" with no determiner or article at all. By coordinated, we mean that they appear in phrases using the coordinators and, or, but and so forth (some people call coordinators coordinating conjunctions). The reason that they seem to be able to appear like this is because they are in such coordinations.

Here are some more examples:

  • A black cat and a brown dog were fighting in the street. Cat and dog were equally filthy.
  • Are you man or mouse?
  • I had pen and paper ready to make notes.
  • Mother and child were said to be recovering well.
  • He appeared to be millionaire and homeless vagabond at the same time.
  • Nothing is so sacred as love between husband and wife.

Bare Coordination versus Bare Role NPs

Notice that these aren't bare role NP's which specify a unique role. Bare role NPs can occur freely as Predicative Complements without a determiner. The nouns in these coordinations cannot appear bare when not in a coordination:

Bare role NP

  • He was Managing Director at Boots.
  • Who's going to be Best Man?
  • We elected her treasurer.

Nouns from the Bare Coordinations

  • *He was millionaire. (ungrammatical)
  • *He used to be cat. (ungrammatical)
  • *Are you mouse? (ungrammatical)
  • *She was wife. (ungrammatical)

Notice as well that bare role NP's can only function as Predicative Complements. However, bare co-ordinations can appear freely in Subject or Object function:

Bare Coordination:

  • Father and son came to see me. (Subject)
  • We punished licensee and client together for the misdemeanour. (Direct Object)

Bare Role NP

  • *Chief executive was an arse. (Subject, ungrammatical)
  • *I punched Managing Director. (Object, ungrammatical)


Notice as well from the first group of examples, that it makes no difference whether the noun phrases are semantically definite or indefinite. In man or mouse both man and mouse are generic and don't refer to a or the man, or the mouse. In contrast, in Both husband and wife are recovering well, the husband and the wife are very specific, definite people. The fact that a noun phrase is in a bare coordination construction doesn't seem to depend on whether they are semantically definite or indefinite. Nobody knows why these bare noun phrases can occur in these coordinations. There is so much that we still don't know about language. Intriguing, isn't it!

Further reading

Here's a couple of articles on bare coordination:

- Heycock and Zamparelli: Coordinated Bare Definites

- Bare_coordination_the_semantic_shift

Many thanks to FumbleFingers for the helpful comment

  • I wasn't familiar with bare role NPs before reading this, but it seems to me your I was nursemaid, mistress and mother to those children is exactly the same as He was Mayor of London and Keeper of the Records (i.e. - they's both "bare role NP" usages). Commented Jan 23, 2016 at 18:35
  • @FumbleFingers You're completely right. Thanks for that. I was duped because of the coordination there. All the tests would show that they are indeed bare role NP's that just happen to be in a coordination. For example, you could use one of them on its own "I was mother to those children". I've removed that example. Cheers :) Commented Jan 23, 2016 at 18:45
  • -1 This does not answer the question asked by the OP. One can say Are you mouse or man? or Are you a mouse or a man? The question is why one or the other, not how the first.
    – GoDucks
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 16:03
  • @GoDucks The answer my friend is that nobody knows, which is what I say in my post, as well as giving some further info on what it is we're looking at. And to some extent it does in fact answer the question, because it is being in a coordination that licences the noun phrases being bare. Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 16:09
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    @TimR I often think that. A type of predicative adjunct, perhaps. Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 13:11

I think that the main reason why there is no article in the expression "husband and wife" is because it is an idiomatic one which represents an emblematic duality that has been mentioned for centuries. Other examples are : "cat and dog" or "body and soul" for instance:

From the OED:


  • A man joined to a woman by marriage. Correlative of wife.

    • 1765 Blackstone Comm. I. xv. (1809) 442 By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law.

From Etymonline:

  • Old English husbonda "male head of a household, master of a house, householder," probably from Old Norse husbondi "master of the house," literally "house-dweller." Beginning late 13c. it replaced Old English wer as "married man (in relation to his wife)" and became the companion word of wife, a sad loss for English poetry.

Ngram: husband and wife, any husband and any wife, a husband and a wife, husbands and wives, a husband and wife.

Note also the adjectival usage of "husband-wife":

  • pertaining to or involving a husband and his wife.

    • 1956 J. M. Mogey Family & Neighbourhood 61 ‘My wife trusts me’ indicates excellent husband–wife adjustment.

    • 1959 Encounter July 73/1 [This book] is by a husband–wife duet of French journalists.

  • I am not sure, checking "husband and wife" examples they appear to be consistent with the expression.
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 20:15
  • I think the Ngram in my answer is reliable in showing the more common expression of "husband and wife" compared to other combinations. If you check usage examples they appear to be consistent with the expressions quoted.
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 20:24
  • @Mari-LouA: "I now pronounce you," of course! Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 1:15
  • @Mari-LouA - can you please delete your comments on Ngram, I don't thnk they are relevant in this case.
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 8:03
  • @Mari-LouA . if you use an article you create e distorsion in the results.
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 8:22

The reason the article is missing is that we speak about a relationship. Love is the one that is described and husband and wife is explaining the type of love

  • Love between mother and child
  • Love between man and God
  • Love between brother and sister

brother, sister, mother, child, man, God are in strict relationship, they coexist. You can find a husband and wife is some context as some sort of an attempt to stress this coexistence, a in such examples is related to both, to the pair.

In that sense between husband and wife is creating a background story where you place love. It is a canvas. This is not necessarily a generic usage, because it is irrelevant what usage it is applied to in one particular sentence. You can speak about specific two people and still omit the article since you speak about love that is beyond these two particular people, as a universal subject they two may or may not join, may or may not share.

In that sense, it is a form of abstract usage, which is not completely abstract since it may be applicable to the couple you have in mind, and thus for you can omit the article. Not only that you can, you feel that it is right to do so.

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