and uncountable nouns
made by both native speakers and non-native speakers relate to the degree
of specificity they are attempting. In other words, the problem is often
conceptual not grammatical.
1. Zero Article
plural + general = zero article - Witnesses give evidence in court.
uncountable + general = zero article - Information is hard to come
by. Little research has been carried out in this area.
Most gerunds used in a general sense, e.g.
Studying is hard work.
Singing in the bath is good for you.
Uncountable nouns can only be used with the (not a)
Petrol is expensive in Britain. (general reference)
'The' is for specific reference.
The petrol we bought at Tesco was the cheapest.
The information we were given led us to believe ...
Examples of common uncountable nouns: (= no plural, no a)
progress, news, scenery, work, logic, permission, traffic, furniture,
chaos, permission, advice, behaviour, research, technology (pl. in the
case of 'the new technologies')
'mass' nouns : money,
cash, mathematics, linguistics, politics, athletics, mumps etc.
substances : milk, petrol,
Occasionally, nouns can be countable/uncountable, depending on the context
- so there is a change in meaning.
Advances in technology mean
that Western medicine is highly expensive and highly specialised: a
large amount of money may be spent on treating a relatively small number
of conditions (for example: kidney machines, life support systems).
The new technologies of advanced
ceramics and polymers have contributed to Japanese leadership in fields
where synthetic materials can be substituted for natural minerals, thereby
offsetting the Japanese disadvantages of few natural resources and cutting
down the need to import large quantities of raw materials. ('monies'
- banking jargon - usually 'funds')
I bought a paper (= newspaper, countable)
I bought some paper (= paper for writing on - uncountable)
I had many interesting experiences during my time at Sussex (= things
which happened to an individual - countable)
Experience of economic upturn was limited in the 1980's (uncountable
- knowledge of something happening in general).
a or an is used for singular, countable nouns which are non-specific
when it does not matter which, or it is not know which specific item
is referred to.
The most common use is the first mention of an item. When the same item
is referred to again, the must be used. If a is used again, the assumption
is that a new item is being referred to.
He has presented a paper at a conference
[indefinite time] [indefinite singular]
Subsequent reference: The paper he presented was at the AISB conference.
an is used in front of a pronounced vowel (an M.P. but a university).
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Well known ideas (to a community) use the:
The sun, the moon, the stars, the rate of inflation, the rule of
Streets - zero article (Oxford Street) unless there is no descriptive
adjectival phrase, then, the avenue, the main/high street
Countries - zero article, unless with an adjectival phrase, often with
words like 'united', 'people's republic', 'commonwealth' etc.
The United Kingdom of ... , The United States of ... , The United
Arab Emirates, The Netherlands ('nether'='low'=adjective, so it
Lakes and mountains - zero article 'Everest', but mountain ranges take
the - 'the Alps'
Rivers take the - The Thames, the Ganges, the Volga, the Seine,
Abstract or Concrete
The boy was rushed to hospital (abstract, institution, zero
There was a fire at the local hospital (concrete, place, with
Genitive - The cost of living, the University of Sussex
but 'living costs', 'Sussex University' with zero article. 'Sussex'
behaves like an adjective.
The Government's problems (genitive) - specific
Government problems (general, any government; 'government' behaves like
In general, errors occur:
a. because of concept confusion between general or specific reference
or whether what is referred to has already been mentioned
b. misapplication of grammar rules
c. first language interference
In some cases (see 'a paper'/paper) both forms are structurally correct
but have different meanings!
(adapted from: www.sussex.ac.uk/langc/skills/articles.html)
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Last updated: 27 May 2011