I am always struggling to figure out whether to use a definite or indefinite article with abstract concepts.

See the following example. Positions in question are marked with (the?):

Section X presents literature on (the?) classical data analysis; namely, (the?) common models and algebras.

What is a rule of thumb? Here is some context:

  • Classical data analysis comprises a variety of methods. These methods, however, share some characterizing features, which have not been detailed yet in the section.
  • Common models and algebras are indeed a variety. They, however, share some characterizing features, which have not been detailed yet in the section.
  • 3
    You missed one determiner spot. Section X presents some literature on ... Then you can omit the before "classical data analysis" because it's the name of a discipline. Before common models and algebras the article is optional, depending on whether you expect the reader to know already that models and algebras are ordinary parts of this kind of analysis. Aug 11, 2022 at 14:26
  • "Common models and algebras are indeed a variety." sounds weird. You might put "are varied." instead, if you mean there are several different ones.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 3, 2022 at 15:40
  • 1
    I don't see how the above construction differs in any fundamental way from the following: "Section X presents literature on classical physics; namely, kinematics and optics." Why is an article needed at all? Oct 2, 2022 at 22:27
  • No article is needed: "... on classical data analysis."
    – TimR
    Feb 25 at 11:00

1 Answer 1


Yesterday I was gobsmacked to be told by a teacher of English as a foreign language that there are not two, but three types of article in English.

That is definite, indefinite and zero. Apparently contrary to received wisdom, yet wholly logical.

Consider these examples:

Would you prefer a soup or something else?

Did you like the soup?

Do you like soup?

  • Master argues that (omitting 'some'), there are four articles. The zero article (least definite, 'We ate $ chicken last night) and the identical-looking null article (most definite; 'He was duly elected $ President of the USA'). The dollar sign shows the 'invisible' articles. Jun 30, 2023 at 12:04
  • Thanks Edwin and who is 'Master'? In any case, do you really believe there are four articles in English? I suggest that rather than unveiling 'extra' articles, those chickens and presidents in fact reveal how flimsy is the English - or French or German - idea of articles, as compared to Central/Eastern European languages, most of which don't use that concept? Jul 9, 2023 at 23:47
  • Covered before: Lawrence's Answer. // While trying to codify universal rules to explain English is doomed to failure, and I usually(!) prefer Quirk et al's gradience model of ing-forms along the V...N continuum, I think Peter Master's analysis where sometimes invisible articles look more definite and sometimes more indefinite makes a lot of sense. Even so, there are grey areas. Jul 10, 2023 at 14:38
  • Oh, gosh. I looked at Master's introduction to Teaching the English Articles as a Binary System in TESOL Quarterly and in all honesty, I wondered how hard it would have been to make it less accessible, particularly to non-native speakers. If understanding the subject depended on reading Master, I'd give up and point out to the learner that simply omitting all articles was an easier way out. Jul 10, 2023 at 18:25
  • But ELU is not targeted at beginners. Master has the age-old unenviable problem of trying to simplify an extremely complex subject to present to learners. His research certainly fits better with a site aimed at linguists. We can be grateful to him for his research and theorising. Jul 10, 2023 at 18:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.