How to teach the zero article
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for no article before nouns, including zero article games.
In languages like Japanese and Russian, articles are only usually used for particular emphasis and are otherwise left out. In complete contrast, in English most sentences need “a”, “an”, “the” or similar words like “some”, “our” or “two”, and you need a special reason for having nothing before a noun in sentences like “He’s in prison” and “She likes cheese”. That no article for special reasons also has a special name – zero article. This article gives some tips on specifically teaching zero article, and there are other articles on site on contrasting it with other articles.
The zero article is wrong in the vast majority of sentences with singular countable nouns (“I like apple” X etc). The special reasons why a noun might be on its own with nothing in front include:
- general statements with plural nouns (“I like cats”, etc)
- general statements with uncountable nouns such as sports (“I like football”, etc)
- sentences with uncountable nouns which could also take “some” (“I ate cheese”, “I had breakfast at seven o’clock”, etc)
- phrases where a preposition plus noun has a special meaning (“in school” meaning being a student, not a teacher or visitor, etc)
- with times, including days, months and ones like “at midnight”, “at lunchtime” and “at rush hour”
- with most country names (“in Japan”, but often “the” in countries made up of different parts, as in “The Philippines” and “the UK”)
- with expressions meaning the way something is done/ the method of doing something (usually after “by” as in “by post”, “by car” and “by sea”, but also “on foot”)
- with noun + cardinal numbers to show which part we are speaking about (platform 12, room 73, section 4, paragraph 2, appendix 7, etc)
Some of these might seem obvious, but all are different in some other languages.
With examples like “in school”, in can be useful to contrast the special meaning with no article with the more general meaning with regular grammar. For example, “I was in hospital for a week” means that I was a patient. This can be contrasted with “He worked in a hospital as a porter during the summer holidays”, which has the same meaning and grammar as “in a post office” and “in a factory”. Other similar ones which have special grammar and meanings include:
- “in school” and “to school” (meaning studying there, in contrast to “There was a fire in the school”)
- “at college/ university/ uni” (as a student, in contrast to “The gig will be in my old uni”)
- “in prison”/ “in jail”/ “in gaol” (meaning a prisoner, in contrast to “The old prison is now a museum”)
- “at sea” (as a sailor, in contrast to “The Titanic sunk into the sea”)
- “in church” (to attend a church service and/ or to pray, in contrast to “There’s a beautiful painting in the church” and, more rarely, to “He really handsome but he’s in the church” to mean a member of the clergy)
The expressions “at home” and “at work” also have special meanings, especially in sentences like “Please make yourself at home” and “I can’t talk now, I’m at work”, but in these cases there are no common contrasting pairs with “the” (although “She’s in the home” could possibly mean that she’s in a nursing home).
“In bed” can also have special meanings such as relaxing or sleeping or possibly being sick, but it is also more generally used to meaning doing anything whilst on a bed with the covers on you (in contrast to the much less common “jumping on the bed” and “There was a spider in my bed”).
Using uncountable nouns and plural nouns for general statements with zero article is much less confusing than the contrasting pairs above, at least until students find out that with countable nouns all three of these forms are possible ways to make statements about things in general:
- Cats eat mice
- A cat makes a good pet
- The cat was a god in Ancient Egypt
This means that “the cat” is probably a specific cat and “a cat” is probably any one cat, but both could also mean the whole species. However, plural nouns with “the” like “The cats” always means specific cats, not cats in general, and the same is true for uncountable nouns like “The information”. This means that zero article is the only way of making general statements with uncountable nouns and plural nouns. In addition, with countable nouns plural with zero article is by far the most common way of talking about things in general. It is therefore well worth teaching zero article as the usual way of making general statements.
How to present the zero article
The first step should be to get students used to using the zero article in basic situations, first of all without any explanation of the grammar. For example, by strongly insisting on “I like cats” instead of “I like cat” X or “I like a cat” for likes and dislikes, students should get used to the very common pattern of plural nouns without an article for general statements. With uncountable nouns, “I like cheese” is more useful for teaching zero article than “There is…” would be, as “There is some…” is more common than “There is + zero article”.
Most teachers probably already naturally correct mistakes like “I’ll see you at the two o’clock” and “Let’s meet on the Tuesday”, as they sound really strange in English.
When it becomes time to consciously contrast zero article and other articles, I would do so with just one of the uses above to start with, e.g. only with places like “at school”, only with country names, or only with general statements. With enough examples that have enough context, students should be able to work out for themselves that “in prison” has a special meaning, that “the Netherlands” and “The United States” are collections of things and usually end in -s, or that “I like the cats” means specific cats. A collection of many of these different contrasts can also be used in the same way for a larger overview of the zero article with higher level classes.
How to practise the zero article
For lots of practice general statements with “Do you like strawberries?” and maybe “Do you like orange juice?”, suitable games include getting one point for each “Yes, I do” answer, perhaps with cards or worksheet with suggested words.
After that, it is generally easier to practise the zero article at the same time as a, an, the, etc, and this also avoids the danger of students forgetting that most nouns need an article. This is dealt with in another article on this site on a/ an, the and zero article. The activities in this article are therefore ones which can work with just zero article or with a real emphasis on zero articles, but most can also work with more of a range of articles.
Article or not stations/ Article or not simplest responses
Students listen to sentences with a pause where an article could possibly go. They then race to show if they think zero article goes in the pause or if an actual article goes there by running and touching one of two walls, holding up one or the other hand, holding up blank paper or paper with “article” written on it, etc. This can also be done before the presentation stage if you start with students just listening out for if they hear an article or not.
Zero article discuss and agree
Students try to agree on and then complete sentences with opinions like “People in prison ____________________________________________”, “Old people in hospital _______________________________________” and “The government should encourage more to travel by ____________________”. Like these sentences, the gapped sentences can be a mix of phrases which already have the zero article in and ones where the zero article goes in the part that they should write. It can be done with a mix of articles and no articles, or there are just about enough zero article examples to make it work for just that language point.
Article and zero article sentence completion games
Similar things can also be done with more personal sentences like “I went to the ______________________(s) _______________________” and “I’d like to go to - ____________________________________________”, in this case with at least some with article probably needed to make enough examples. These can be used to find things in common or for a bluffing game.
Article or zero article coin games
Students flip a coin to decide if the next statement or question should have an article (heads) or no article (tails). For example, if they flip heads they can continue the story with “He heard his mother in the next room”, but if they get tails they could continue with “He heard that his mother was in prison”. As well as storytelling, this works for bluffing games (making a statement with or without an article for people to ask questions about and then guess if it’s true or false).
Zero article storytelling
As well as the coin game above, storytelling could be done with cards or a worksheet with key words which go with zero article and maybe key words which go with actual articles, making sure that they are all ones which would make for interesting fiction like “hospital” and “helicopter”. If you include two of the same word, students can also practise using “the” the second time that they refer to something.
Zero article key words activities
As well as telling a story with key words like “prison” and “Christmas Day”, students could do bluffing games, finding things in common or finding opinions in common like those suggested for sentence stems above.