Why is the indefinite article omitted here? enter image description here

Could it be the definite article, but omitted? Like in the following case in an instruction:

Grasp drumstick. Place knife between thigh and body; cut through skin to joint. Separate thigh and drumstick at joint.

All those omittions would normally have the definite article, but this doesn't seem plausible in my case.

Why is there no article here, too?

enter image description here

I've noticed that this happens only with the following prepositons:

before; after; from; to || day after day; from person to person; from teacher to student

My questions are: Why are the articles omitted in all those examples? Does it have something to do with comparisons? Is there any rule for this usage?

3 Answers 3


You have presented two different kinds of instances.

In the first and third examples, the omission of the articles represents standard usage. In both cases, the nouns represent abstractions: "teacher and learner" are not specific people, but instead represent roles in a hypothetical or generalized situation. "Question after question" represents no specific questions, but rather a generic and, one would think lengthy, series of interrogatories.

The second example is the sort of thing commonly found in printed instructions. The style is reminiscent of telegraphic, news headline applications. It may have risen from the need to economize on printed space, or the need to render the text simply for quick reference in a difficult and distracted environment.

(Fire alarm - break glass and pull handle)

It is also possible that it imitates a documentation style that originated among persons with limited English proficiency engaged in the international export of widgets.

  • Part of me is just itching to edit <strike> and </strike> (which I don't think work in comments) before and after the four words from the end of your final sentence! :) Jun 24 at 15:44

According to CGEL, dropping the article of count nouns in the singular can happen (outside 'headlinese') under only restricted circumstances. For completeness, I will reproduce the full discussion. Your first example belongs to the category [20vii] ('matched nouns'), while your second example belongs to [20vi] ('repeated nouns').

One caveat is that in your second example, what is repeated is a two-word noun phrase (NP) rather than a single noun. But what rules of syntax concern almost always are not individual words of a given lexical category (e.g. 'nouns'), but rather structures that have the same syntactical function (NPs, regardless of whether they consist of a single noun or a noun plus dependents).

In CGEL's terminology, if a 'noun group' is not preceded by a determiner, it is called a 'bare NP'. Other sources might say that it has a 'zero article'.

Note that the asterisk (' * ') in front of a group of words indicates that this group is not acceptable as a sentence or part of a sentence.

So here is CGEL, on the subject of bare NPs (pp. 409-410).

8.5 Restricted non-referential interpretations of bare NPs

Here we cover cases similar to those dealt with in §8.4, i.e. cases where only a restricted range of head nouns is found. This time, however, our concern is with bare NPs. We confine our attention to singular count nouns, which normally require a determiner.

(a) Bare role NPs

[19]  i  Henry became treasurer.
        ii  As treasurer, I strongly support this proposal.
       iii  The role of treasurer will fall to Henry.

NPs such as treasurer, deputy leader of the party, occur as the predicative complements of verbs like be, become, appoint, elect, as oblique predicative governed by as, and as complement of the preposition of following nouns like role, part, or position. They cannot occur as subjects (*I'm told treasurer strongly supports this proposal) or objects (*We dismissed treasurer): in these positions they require a determiner. The interpretation of bare role NPs is invariably definite: in [19], for example, we are concerned with the office of treasurer in some particular organisation. They are therefore invariably replaceable by their counterparts with determiner the, as in Henry became the treasurer, and so on.
It is important to note that only NPs which genuinely allow role interpretations can function in this manner. The verb become, for example, also allows non-role nouns such as miser as head of the predicative complement, but such nouns require determiners: Fred became *miser/a miser when he lost his job.

(b) Fixed expressions or frames

[20]  i  Ed is in hospital / went to school / went off stage.          [activities linked to
         ii  They are out of place / off target / on call.                                   [indications of
        iii  We went by bicycle / communicate by email.                              [transport and
        iv  We had lunch on the terrace.                                                                            [meals]
         v  at dawn, by daybreak, before sunrise                                                        [times]
        vi  arm in arm, back to back, day after day, mouthful                      [repeated
              by mouthful, side by side, mile upon mile                                                nouns]
       vii  from father to son, from beginning to end, between                        [matched
              husband and wife, mother and child                                                         nouns]

The examples in [i] are illustrative of a number of restricted expressions connected with common activities of everyday life where no determiner is permitted, even when the noun involved is in other uses a singular count noun denoting a location which would require a determiner. In these cases, the noun acts as an indication of the associated activity, and does not have its standard denotation. Contrast, for example, Ed is in bed (resting/asleep) with referential There are fleas in the bed; or Ed is in prison (serving time) with There was a riot in the prison; or again Ed is in church (at a service) with There is a new pulpit in the church. The nouns which permit this use are severely restricted. We do not have for example *Ed is at desk (studying), *Ed is at computer (working), *Ed is in kitchen (cooking). Nevertheless there are a fair number of them: others include the underlined [here boldfaced] nouns in such expressions as on campus,in class, at college, settle out of court, at sea (as a sailor), at table (for a meal), leave town, start university.

The examples in [20ii] relate to what we may call 'status': whether or not something is in its proper place, whether or not someone is available or engaged in their proper activity. These fixed expressions are comparable to those with non-count nouns such as at work, at play. The bare NPs in [iii] occur after the preposition by: compare the definite NPs in [i7iv]. Meals are generally expressed by bare NPs, except when a particular occasion is singled out: compare [20iv] with We had a nice lunch at the Savoy. Note also at/by dinner, where the meal indicates a time of day. Bare NPs are used for times of day following the prepositions at, by, before, until, after, as in [20v]; note, however, that morning, daytime, evening, and dark take in + the instead of at: in the / *at morning. The examples in [vi-vii] are illustrative of anumber of expressions involving repetition of the same noun or contrasting nouns; for thecategory status of the expressions in [vi], see Ch. 7, §4.3. Similarly, in coordinate structures, bare NPs can optionally be used in repetition: We searched endlessly for a spring or a cave to spend the night, but neither spring nor cave could be found.

On the subject of bare coordination, see also this answer.

  • Yes, CGEL's treatment is good. The authors don't, however, distinguish the zero and null articles which Master proposes ('We had Ø₁/a chicken for tea,' Ø₁ the zero, least definite, article v 'Thanks for the/Ø₂ lunch,' Ø₂ the null, most definite, article). Jun 24 at 15:32

All indefinite noun phrases begin with an indefinite determiner: a[n], one, two, some, many, ... All other noun phrases are definite. The definite article 'the' is required to distinguish mass nouns ('the water is good' vs 'water is good'), groups ('the two cats ate' vs 'two cats ate'), and it helps to separate individuals from concepts ('the cat is bad' vs '"cat" is a word'). In cases where definiteness is clear (from lack of a determiner on a count noun), 'the' can be omitted. It shouldn't be done too often, but it is common when space is limited. Note that proper nouns are typically definite in use, so we omit 'the' before names.

  • 1
    This answer is very careless. Basically every statement is confusing or misleading (at best). Let's start with the very first sentence. As it stands, it is just wrong, since plural indefinite NPs don't require a determiner. (Arguably, non-count nouns can also be indefinite without requiring a determiner, e.g. I poured water into the glass, when the intended meaning is I poured some water into the glass.) Next, what do you mean by "distinguish mass nouns" and "groups"? Your examples just illustrate that water and two cats may or may not be definite. Jun 23 at 18:53
  • And as far as "cat," the principal way we know you are talking about the word itself is the quotation marks, not the absence of the determiner. And anyway "cat" does allow the definite article (e.g., The "cat" in the sentence "My cat is cute" is a noun), and maybe even the indefinite one (e.g., You need a "cat" to make "My is a good mouser" into a proper sentence). Jun 23 at 18:54
  • But most importantly, it is absolutely not true that we can, under normal circumstances, arbitrarily omit the definite article (by which I take it you meant "the definite article or other determiner") "when definiteness is clear." This "optional omission" is only acceptable under special circumstances, e.g. in "headlinese." Your disclaimer that "It shouldn't be done too often, but it is common when space is limited" is not enough. Jun 23 at 18:54
  • For example, no native speaker would drop the definite article at the beginning of the second sentence in this example: "I saw a cat yesterday. The cat was beautiful." And in any event, what is happening in the examples quoted in the question you are trying to answer is not a headlinese-like optional omission; instead, those examples belong to what CGEL calls "matched nouns" (p. 409). Another example of the same phenomenon is bare coordination. Jun 23 at 18:54
  • For all these reasons, I am downvoting this answer. If you decide to fix it, please leave a comment here that starts with @linguisticturn so I will be notified of the change, and I will then upvote. Jun 23 at 19:00

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