So today my Japanese student asked me why there is no "the" before "turnout" in the following paragraph.

But Becker said that while turnout in purple states like Florida and Pennsylvania had a slight uptick this year, at least 19 other states saw lower turnout rates compared with 2012, a scenario that is antithetical to presidential-year voting that tends to increase each cycle when an incumbent is not a part of the race.

(Source: What does voter turnout tell us about the 2016 election?, PBS Newshour, 11/20/16.)

I ended up saying that we can add "the", but it's not necessary, so it's a case where you can add "the" or exclude it. My student became confused, and I feel like I provided a bad explanation. ( or a wrong one at that )

Can someone please help me explain this to him?

Thank you to whoever is willing to help out!

  • Because the phrase does not, necessarily, refer to all the purple states, there might be some purple states where the turnout was not increased. If you are referring to some characterictic of all purple states, for example "The purple states are ones in which support for Republican and Democrat parties is evenly matched' or 'the result of a US presidential election is usually decided by the purple states' then you use 'the'. – BoldBen Nov 26 '16 at 13:18
  • It's certainly correct with "the". Without "the", I would say "the" is implied. I wish I had a more satisfying response. I hope someone else will. Maybe @BoldBen. – Richard Kayser Nov 26 '16 at 13:29
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    Interesting question! Logically, one might expect voter apathy, for example, to be subject to the same syntactic constraints as [voter] turnout. But whereas the cited text seems fine with or without a definite article, I certainly don't find it acceptable to include it in I think [the] voter apathy played a major part in the election. I just can't explain why there's a difference between the two contexts. – FumbleFingers Nov 26 '16 at 13:34
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    @FumbleFingers: I for one don't see a problem with "when the temperature is high" ... – Robusto Nov 26 '16 at 15:18
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    @FumbleFingers: I'm saying I don't see a problem with using the article (or not) with either temperature or humidity. – Robusto Nov 26 '16 at 15:51

From a linguistic point of view, the missing article is called a Zero Article.

Several sections in the paper Determinants of Zero Article Use with Abstract Nouns: a Corpus-based Study are relevant. It starts off:

The zero article is normal with a number of non-postmodified abstract nouns even in cases where these are not used generically...

It proceeds to give examples. While "turnout" is not one of them, the following descriptions fits eerily well anyways:

Substituting the for zero in front of these nouns normally yields equally acceptable sentences, and would indeed be the normal choice in conversation, as transcriptions of speech and native speaker elicitation suggest...

The paper then proposes this conclusion as to why:

It would be more reasonable to view this kind of zero usage as a text-type-specific phenomenon limited to a distinct set of nouns and motivated by the desire for economy of expression.

Of course, this isn't a good explanation for your student (or anyone besides linguists). You should probably just tell them that while the original sentence is idiomatic, it's also idiomatic to use the there. But English is inconsistent; thinking too much about definite article rules "will send you to the hospital" in American English, but, in British English, it "will send you to hospital" ;)


Your answer is correct.

"Turnout" has a sense both as a countable noun and as a mass noun. If the definite article "the" is used, it takes the former sense, while if the definite article is omitted it takes the latter sense. Countable nouns, but not mass nouns, require articles.

Merriam-Webster uses the mass noun sense. But, because turnout is a name for something that is actually a whole number, using it as a countable noun is not improper.

  • -1 While it's true that many nouns can be used as both mass and count, the use of the with such a noun does not automatically mean it is being used as a count noun. – Alan Carmack Nov 26 '16 at 16:13
  • Then is "turnout" used as a mass noun in the sentence I wrote? (But Becker said that while turnout in purple states like Florida and Pennsylvania had a slight uptick this year....) – Anna Nov 26 '16 at 17:48
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    @Anna Yes, turnout is a mass noun in the sentence you ask about. You can use the definite article before mass nouns: The research conducted by Professor Smith shows that... – Alan Carmack Nov 26 '16 at 18:54
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    Well, @Anna, not really. I could have wrote: Research conducted by Professor Smith shows that.... In other words, contrary to what this answer states, a mass noun can take a definite article--but it doesn't have to. Thus, imho, no one has given you an answer (yet). (I am working on one, as time permits. It is not an easy topic.) – Alan Carmack Nov 26 '16 at 19:55
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    @anna It might be helpful to use as an example a mass/noncount noun that clearly shows a change in meaning if the article is used: Literature reveals that there are no new plots. The literature reveals that there are no new plots. In the first, the sentence refers to all of literature. In the second, it refers to literature that is only concerned with the subject. of "no new plots." – Zan700 Dec 16 '16 at 19:27

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