4 WHEN DO WE USE 'THE' AND ZERO ARTICLE?

As we have now learnt, a and an are indefinite articles – that is, the words that appear before a noun that give the idea of one individual thing being one of many other individual things. A ball=one ball, one of many possible balls, one ball that we are talking about for the first time. 

 

Now we will find out some more about the and zero article.

 

Look at this example:

 

I went to a restaurant next to the beach. I ordered a bowl of soup. The soup was very nice but the restaurant did not have very good service. In fact, the service was terrible so I won’t go back to the restaurant again.

 

 

g) A QUICK CHECK (2 minutes)

What are the nouns and noun phrases in the four sentences above?

 

 

FEEDBACK

The nouns are restaurant, beach, bowl, soup, service. The noun phrases (more than one word that describe one noun) are a bowl of soup and very good service.

 

Now we will look closely at what articles are being used, and why those particular articles are being used.

 

The short story begins with I went to a restaurant...

Here, we talk about this restaurant for the first time, as one restaurant, one of many possible restaurants the speaker could go to. So we use the indefinite article a.

 

I went to a restaurant next to the beach. Now ask yourself: From that sentence, how many beaches are likely to be next to this restaurant?

Of course, it is very certain that it will be just one beach. It is not likely to be one of many possible beaches that will be next to this restaurant, unless the geography of the land makes it possible to have two or more beaches... but I think you would agree that this is not very often.

As it is clear from the context that we know what beach we are talking about, we would say the beach. This is the beach, and that the restaurant we are talking about for the first time is next to it, so we use the definite articleThe. The beach.

  

I ordered a bowl of soup =one bowl of soup, one of many possible bowls of soup that are sold in this restaurant.

 

The soup was very nice… What soup are we talking about? We are talking about the soup that was in the bowl that the person ordered. We now know what soup this is (the soup that was in the bowl), and that this soup is definite, so we use the.

 

…but the restaurant… What restaurant are we talking about? We are talking about the restaurant that is next to the beach, the restaurant where the person ordered the bowl of soup. So we use the as it is clear which restaurant is being talked about.

 

… did not have very good service. Service is an uncountable noun. Service is made up of many things - these can be just a few things or even too many things that makes it difficult or impossible to count, so we call these nouns uncountable nouns. Uncountable nouns do not use a or an, so we do not put these letters before these nouns, for example, traffic (NOT a traffic), ink (NOT an ink).  Or grammatically, we say the zero article is used. Or in other words, no article at all.

 

In fact, the service was terrible… What service are we talking about? We are talking about the service in the restaurant that is next to the beach; we are talking about the service that was not very good. In this case, we use the, and this can be used before both countable and uncountable nouns when it is clear (or definite) what these nouns are.

 

…so I won’t go back to the restaurant again. What restaurant are we talking about? We are talking about the restaurant where the speaker experienced terrible service. The restaurant that is next to the beach. The restaurant where the person ordered the bowl of soup. So we use the as it is clear which restaurant is being talked about.

 

 

h) A QUICK CHECK (8 minutes)

Can you complete the story below by adding a, an, the, or nothing at all (zero article)?

 

I went to ____ very expensive hotel. _____ staff were very helpful and ____ room was very nice. I ordered _____ cup of tea and  ______ sandwiches, and ____ waiter brought ______ tea for me. _______ sandwiches were very nice. I enjoyed ______ hotel. I will go again next year.

 

 

FEEDBACK

I went to very expensive hotel.  There are many expensive hotels, and the speaker went to one of them. This is also being talked about for the first time.

 

The staff were very helpful… There is only one set of staff at the hotel, and that is the staff that work there, and so this is clear from the context which staff are being talked about. We are talking about the staff (people) that work in the hotel. So we use the.

 

…and the room was very nice. How many rooms did the speaker stay at in the hotel? Only one. The room that they stayed in, the room that they remember and that they are reporting on. They are NOT talking about their neighbour’s room or anybody else’s room. So the context of which room is clear, their room, so we use the.


I ordered cup of tea… There are many possible cups of tea at this hotel, and the speaker ordered one of them. They are also talking about this cup of tea for the first time. So they use a.

 

…and sandwiches… there are many sandwiches, not just one sandwich. The speaker is talking about these sandwiches for the first time, and as we are talking about more than one sandwich - using the plural form of sandwiches - we do not use any indefinite articles.

 

And a/the waiter brought tea for me. Here, both or the could be used, but it depends on the context. is used if this is one of many possible waiters that served the speaker. It could also be the if it is one waiter, a waiter that is either the only waiter at the hotel or one waiter that has been assigned to the couple to serve them each time they want something. More naturally, English native speakers tend to use the with waiter; this person - whose job is to serve people - is considered an institution. This individual has been assigned to them and is also part of the hotel facilities.


Tea is a liquid so is uncountable (zero article), but the speaker could also have said a cup of tea, a pot (container) of tea or some tea. There are many English native speakers who would also say the tea is okay here, as we know what tea we are talking about, or they are just saying the tea without it being necessary to talk about the container it comes in, but the other options are more natural.

The sandwiches were very nice. These are the sandwiches the speaker ordered. So we know what sandwiches are being talked about: we use the.

I enjoyed the hotel. I will go again next year. Which hotel? The speaker is talking about the hotel they stayed at. And so we use the.

So, those are the basics of using a, an and the, plus zero article.

Ah yes, the basics. There is still so much more to learn!

I would suggest that at this point you stop.


Give yourself a break for some time - if necessary, a day. Then look back over the previous pages in this mini-course to revise what you have learnt so far. 
 

Make sure you understand it, and that you are happy with it. Then this should make the next stages a lot simpler!

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