Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik – A Quarterly of Language, Literature and Culture (2001/2: 105-120)


Dirk Siepmann


Determinants of Zero Article Use with Abstract Nouns: a Corpus-informed Study of Journalistic and Academic English




The present paper discusses new evidence on zero article use with abstract English noun phrases using a corpus-based approach. In particular, it investigates the role played by lexical and textual features of the linguistic environment in determining article use. It is found that lexico-grammatical determinants of zero article use can be classified under four major headings, viz. "abstract nouns postmodified by periphrastic genitives", "abstract nouns postmodified by other types of of-phrases", "abstract nouns postmodified by prepositional phrases introduced by prepositions other than of" and "abstract nouns without postmodification". Close examination of large corpora reveals previously unknown aspects of these structures, and attempts at translating them into German demonstrate the occasional necessity of complex shifts from nominal to verbal constructions. Such findings, the conclusion suggests, should be incorporated into teaching materials for non-native writers and trainee translators.


1. Introduction


During the past two decades, the principal developments in linguistics, language teaching and translation studies have focussed upon the study of language as communication and cognitive activity. The more traditional problems facing the language learner and the translator have suffered comparative neglect. One such problem is the use of determiners in English. The subject has been extensively treated - or so one would think - by a number of eminent Anglicists (e.g. Christophersen 1939, Jespersen 1949, Zandvoort 1969, Kaluza 1981, Quirk et al. 1985, Lamprecht 1986, Biber et al. 1999), but their descriptions, partly because they are not grounded on a sufficient research base, are somewhat unsatisfactory and fail to meet the requirements of advanced non-native writers and translators.

This paper looks at the use of the zero article with abstract noun phrases, pursuing a two-fold aim: firstly, to fill a gap in research on English grammar and, secondly, to exemplify the interrelationship between lexis and grammar on the one hand, and grammar and text type on the other. I begin by considering the state of the art in research on English determiners. This is followed by a detailed discussion of lexico-grammatical and text-linguistic determinants of zero article use. I conclude with a brief examination of the problems associated with the translation into German of noun phrases preceded by the zero article.


2. The State of the Art


At least since Christophersen (1939) it has been common practice among grammarians to refer to the apparent absence of an article as the "zero form", the "zero article" or the "article zero"; for want of a better term, we shall follow this usage in the present article (for a discussion of the notion, see Huddleston 1988 and Hudson 1998; cf. also Quirk et al. 1985, 246; Biber et al. 1999, 261). Borrowing from Christophersen (1939), Jespersen (1949) and most other grammarians after him distinguish two types of zero usage: "toto-generic" and "parti-generic". The former denotes the whole of a genus everywhere and at all times (e.g. lead is heavier than iron), while the latter denotes an indefinite quantity or number of the genus (e.g. we had tea).

It is fair to assume that such monumental grammars as Quirk et al. (1985), Sinclair (1990) or Biber et al. (1999) provide comprehensive coverage of the various uses of determiners in present-day English. Of these, Quirk et al. (1985) devote the largest space to the zero article with abstract nouns; this is what they have to say on the subject:


In English, noncount abstract nouns usually have no article when used generically:


My favourite subject is history/French/mathematics/music (...)


Normally, the zero article also occurs when the noncount abstract noun is premodified:


She's studying European history. (...)


But when the same noun is postmodified, especially by an of-phrase, the definite article normally precedes it:


She's studying *history of Europe.

She's studying the history of Europe.


We thus find typical contrasts of the following kind:


human evolution - the evolution of man (...)


It appears that the cataphoric the is added (...) because the effect of the of-phrase is to single out a particular subclass of the phenomenon denoted by the noun, and thereby to change a generic meaning into a specific or partitive one (...) (Quirk et al.: 1985, 285; emphases theirs)


As Quirk et al.'s (1985) observations and comments largely coincide with those made by others, there is no point in comparing several grammars. Even the corpus-based Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al. 1999) has no new insights to offer on the subject, and nor do recent monographs (Kaluza 1981, Berry 1993).


3. Lexico-grammatical Determinants of Article Use


This section presents a substantial body of evidence suggesting that the treatment given the zero article in studies such as Quirk et al. (1985) is neither exhaustive nor completely reliable. A few preliminary examples will give some idea of the type of zero usage I wish to discuss:


   (i)            use of the tense

   (ii)           efficiency of that magnitude

   (iii)          demand for many marketed services

   (iv)          reaction in Northern Ireland was immediate


Contrary to what one would expect in view of the above-cited remarks of Quirk et al. (1985), the postmodified abstract noun is not preceded by an article in these examples. A handful of examples similar to (iv) were spotted as far back as 1939 by Christophersen, who stresses the recency and apparent inadequacy of the use: "In recent times a tendency has sprung up to use (one might almost say 'misuse') the zero-form even where the the-form would seem to be required" (Christophersen: 1939, 108). Since then, oddly enough, just one other grammarian has detected further evidence of this kind of zero usage, namely Hewson (1972, 120 ff.). Hewson (1972, 124) lists a number of abstract nouns that commonly take the zero article even when modified, but omits to give due consideration to the determinants of zero usage, contenting himself with the following high-sounding - and, as we shall see, erroneous - generalizations inspired by Guillaume's brand of mentalism:


(...) here zero article is chosen to give the noun a continuate sense (...) Modifiers, whether adjectival or phrasal, do not affect the use of the article (...) The purpose of all these instances of zero is the avoidance, for one reason or another, of exact or unit reference, and the providing of a representation lacking in clear limit and outline. (Hewson: 1972, 120)


 Even at this stage in our investigation it is easy to prove the inexactitude of these remarks: efficiency of that magnitude, for example, clearly makes exact reference to an antecedent specifying the scope of the efficiency gains being discussed, as attested by the wider context:


The optimists say that's only the beginning. They believe that Western Europe and Japan, already the most energy-efficient economies of the world, could increase their efficiencies by factors of 2 to 4 with technologies already available or easily foreseeable within twenty years. (...) Efficiency of that magnitude would make it possible to supply most or all of the world's energy from solar-based renewable sources (...) (acadcorp)


 What Hewson (1972, 123) is right about, however, is the high frequency of this type of zero usage in present-day English; there is overwhelming evidence to indicate that what may have been an ephemeral usage in the 1930s has now become commonplace. This evidence can be classified under four major headings:


·        abstract nouns postmodified by periphrastic genitives

·        abstract nouns postmodified by other types of of-phrases

·        abstract nouns postmodified by prepositional phrases introduced by prepositions other than of

·        abstract nouns without postmodification


For each of these groups an attempt will be made to specify the constraints on article use. The exemplificatory material used for this purpose has been culled from two major sources: firstly, the 1995 CD-ROM edition of The Times and the Sunday Times (cited hereafter as newscorp) and secondly, an academic corpus comprising around 40 million words (cited hereafter as acadcorp). The domains represented in the latter are literature, linguistics, history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, economics, musicology, theology, political science, education, law and medicine. The corpus contains only complete texts, with the one exception of book chapters, which are usually self-contained in their discursive structure. 1980 was taken as the baseline year for the selection of published material, although less than 20 per cent of the corpus texts predate 1990. 


3.1 Abstract Nouns Postmodified by Periphrastic Genitives


In all of the following examples an abstract noun has been postmodified by a periphrastic genitive:


(1a)            Use of marketed services is severely restricted among poorer households. (acadcorp)


(1b)            Similarly, a state policy requiring the use of the "whole life" method for depreciating the "intrastate component" of LECs' central office equipment ... (acadcorp)           


(2a)            Use of the tense serves virtually as a legal escape clause, an avoidance of liability for the truth of what is alleged. (acadcorp)


(2b)            This parallels the use of these two terms in the current literature (acadcorp)    


(3a)            Nationalization of industry contributed to the rapid growth of state employees (...) (acadcorp)


(3b)            It either results in a Fascist state or the nationalization of industries and thereafter a Socialist or Communist state. (acadcorp)       


(4a)            Growth of anything physical (...) cannot continue forever. (acadcorp)


(4b)            However, the growth of advertising since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been remarkable. (acadcorp)


(5a)            Expansion of these services may be expected to continue increasing slowly. (acadcorp)


(5b)            The expansion of English domains would also tend to exacerbate elite closure.               (acadcorp)


(6a)            News of a 4 per cent increase in sales of Rolls-Royce cars last year failed to lift Vickers (...) (newscorp)


(6b)            The news of Alexandra's death will add to emotions at Emma's funeral today at the village church of St Margaret's. (newscorp)


(7a)            Criticism of British Telecom's alterations has been laced with a certain absurdity. (newscorp)   

(7b)            The criticism of Mr Clarke by Tory backbenchers said more about their desire to stop him succeeding John Major than his so-called gaffe. (newscorp)


(8a)            Though rejection of the treaty would have no direct effect on already existing EC institutions like the CAP (...) (newscorp)


(8b)            The rejection of grown-up attitudes was most marked among people from middle-class backgrounds. (newscorp)


(8c)            British rejection of a single currency would mark a deeper breach with its continental partners. (newscorp)


(8d)            (...) he will give warning that postponing a decision until well after the 1999 deadline would amount to a British rejection of economic and monetary union. (newscorp)


(9a)            The constant revision of interlanguage rules is the result of the learner responding to evidence that requires modification of hypotheses. (acadcorp)


(9b)            The question becomes, since 62% of the females in the survey are college preparatory students, how quickly will reality lead to a modification of their goals? (acadcorp)           


(10a)          the techniques used for grammatical investigation of the LSWE corpus (acadcorp)


(10b)          The diachronic investigation of the Helsinki Corpus revealed both text type and word structure as important factors. (acadcorp)   


Two main points emerge from these examples. The most salient is that, contrary to received wisdom, the zero article does in fact commonly occur with a wide variety of abstract nouns postmodified by a periphrastic genitive. Interestingly, the phenomenon under discussion is not restricted to non-count nouns such as use, nationalization, growth, expansion, news and criticism (examples 1a-7a); there seems to be some basis for claiming that the abstract count nouns rejection, modification and investigation (8a, 8c, 9a, 10a) also have non-count noun status, thus exhibiting "dual class membership". In sentences (1a)-(10a), where the nouns are not premodified, free choice appears to be available between the use or the omission of the definite article, as suggested by examples (1b)-(10b), where the same nouns as those used in (1a)-(10a) appear with the definite article. The converse of this reasoning, however, does not seem to apply to all cases; thus, for example, the substitution of zero for the in (2b) yields a sentence of only marginal acceptability. This may be due to the syntactic position or function of use in (2b), a factor discussed in Section 3.3 below.

The second point is that postmodified nouns of the type under consideration commonly take the indefinite article when premodified by an adjective. The type of contrast illustrated above by (8a) (zero article + noun), (8c) (zero article + adjective + noun) and (8d) (indefinite article + adjective + noun) finds a parallel in the optional use of the indefinite article in such cases as


She played the oboe with sensitivity.

She played the oboe with (a) remarkable sensitivity. (examples from Quirk et al.: 1985, 287)


Quirk et al. (1985, 287) note that "the indefinite article is used exceptionally here with nouns that are normally uncount", adding that the conditions under which it is permissible are unclear, but appear to be related to two factors:


(i)                  the noun refers to a quality or other abstraction which is attributed to a person;

(ii)                the noun is premodified and/or postmodified; and generally speaking, the greater the amount of modification, the greater the acceptability of a/an.


The following examples provide strong confirmation of the applicability of the second factor, containing, as they do, a non-count noun premodified by an adjective and postmodified by a periphrastic genitive:


(11)                  The World Energy Conference projected in 1989 that a business-as-usual continuation of population and capital growth would increase world energy demand by another 75% by the year 2000. (acadcorp)


(12)            Variations among real languages or varieties were judged to be serious obstacles to “economic growth”, which seemed to call for a wider integration of the “working classes” and “minorities” by “improving” their language-dependent skills. (acadcorp)


(13)            None of these terms necessarily implies that this metamorphosis was, on the one hand, part of a deliberate policy of the conqueror, or, on the other, a voluntary imitation of a more advanced culture by a less sophisticated one, though  "romanisation" is used by some writers in the former sense. (acadcorp)


(14)            Even a thoroughgoing privatization of the money stock is not enough to make a strict (no-feedback) monetary base rule work perfectly. (acadcorp)


(15)                   Otherwise, we are not strictly speaking of "punishment" at all: perhaps more often than we like to admit, public condemnation, incarceration, or execution is a symbolic elimination of a perceived evil, whether or not we think, or have good grounds for thinking, that the victim is really guilty. (acadcorp)   


Continuation, integration, imitation, privatization and elimination would not normally be considered count nouns in the cases under consideration; nor do they refer to animate entities. The relative frequency of such examples forces us to recognise that the indefinite article is not just used "exceptionally" (Quirk et al.: 1985, 287) with modified non-count nouns, and it further strengthens the case for positing dual class membership for nouns such as continuation, integration and rejection. It is also interesting to note that, unlike the class of nouns denoting emotions touched upon by Berry (1993, 20-21), not all the above noun-adjective collocations admit the zero article. Whereas zero seems acceptable with (11), (12) and (14), it is less likely with (13) and impossible with (15). Note further that all the examples given so far underscore the crude generality of Hewson's claim that "modifiers, whether adjectival or phrasal, do not affect the use of the (zero, D.S.) article" (Hewson: 1972, 124). My suggestion is that if a noun group on its own admits the use of the indefinite article (a British rejection), then so does the corresponding postmodified noun group (a British rejection of the treaty).

By contrast with examples (11) - (15), another set of abstract noun-adjective collocations exhibit such a high degree of fixedness that they take the zero article even when postmodified. It follows that article use with abstract nouns is not determined by the grammatical status of the noun alone. Rather, the nature of the immediate linguistic environment, i.e. the discourse lying immediately to the left and/or right of the structure, appears to play a decisive role: the more restrained the environment, or, put another way, the closer a syntagm containing an abstract noun is situated towards the fixed end of the phraseological cline (on this notion, see Francis 1993 and Siepmann 1999), the more likely it is that the zero article will be used. Thus, for example, verb + adjective + noun collocations based on the verb-noun collocations make use of s.th. or pay attention to s.th. invariably dispense with the definite and indefinite articles (with the exception of make the best use of, clearly motivated by the use of the superlative); similarly with verb + adjective + noun collocations based on place / put / lay emphasis on s.th, which in the vast majority of cases are accompanied by the zero article.  Outside these complex collocations, however, the definite and indefinite articles do occur with use / emphasis + adjective. The following examples of use illustrate this contrast:


(16)            Investors must work towards making proper use of these opportunities. (acadcorp; emphases mine)


(17)            The first four examples are taken from the speech of B. (appendix C., transcript 10), a community worker and university graduate, who made particularly frequent use of pronoun copying but whose speech is in most other respects close to standard. (acadcorp; emphases mine)                               


(18)                  Systems supporting the cluttered desktop metaphor can suffer from figure-ground ambiguity.  Fortunately, the figure-ground distinction can be enhanced by the proper use of graphic devices such as borders, highlighting, overlapping, graying out, colors, etc. (acadcorp; emphases mine) 


(19)                  In section 4.4.2. I argue that the relatively frequent use of pronoun copying in ZE can, in part, be explained as compensating for the fact that the ZE prosodic system differs from the StdSAE one. (acadcorp; emphases mine)


The same kind of considerations are valid for abstract noun + adjective collocations preceded by prepositions such as amid. Typical examples are amid vague talk of, amid mounting evidence of or amid growing criticism of. Contrast:


(20)            British agriculture is too valuable an asset to be allowed to drift in a tide of consumer doubts about one of its prime products amid growing criticism of some scientific advances, such as the production of genetically modified crops, about which the Prince of Wales spoke in warning terms last week. (newscorp; emphases mine)


(21)            At home he was concerned by the growing criticism of modern farming which he sought to address in his jointly written book entitled Farm Mechanisation and the Countryside. (newscorp; emphases mine)


In less restrained environments usage wavers, as attested by frequency counts carried out on the aforementioned corpora. The following contrasts were noted regarding noun + adjective collocations followed by a periphrastic genitive and based on the nouns use, proof, criticism and investigation (results for the newspaper corpus are given first; occurrences of one usage to the exclusion of all others in at least one corpus have been shaded):


Collocation (+ peri-phrastic genitive; occurrences with make not counted)

zero article

definite article

indefinite article

appropriate use




bold use




clever use




continued use




correct use




efficient use




heavy use




increased use




indiscriminate use




practical use




proper use




sustainable use




ubiquitous use




widespread use





Fig. 1: Article use with adjective + use + periphrastic genitive (selected collocations)


It should be clear from this table that it cannot be the frequency or fixedness of the collocation alone that determines article use. Heavy use, for example, which in the academic corpus occurred nine times without an article (as against one occurrence with the indefinite article), is less frequent than widespread use, which prefers the definite article in both the news and academic contexts.

The situation is further compounded by the fact that high-probability collocations such as heavy use are not alone in preferring the zero article, as witness the only moderately common collocations ubiquitous use and human use:


(22)            Efficiency, however, as a factor to justify or sustain the trend towards ubiquitous use of technology, is not acceptable as the sole driver for change within universities. (acadcorp)


(23)            the physical limits to human use of materials (...) (acadcorp)


It is also interesting to note that article use is not normally attributable to idiolectal differences. In one monograph the same postmodified collocation (sustainable use) occurred both with and without the definite article.

The situation is somewhat different with the noun proof. There is a clear tendency in evidence to employ the zero article with most standard collocations of proof. The indefinite article was never found, and the definite article only with final proof. (These results were confirmed by a trawl through another corpus.)


Collocation (+ peri-phrastic genitive)

zero article

definite article

indefinite article

ample proof




conclusive proof




final proof




further proof




living proof




tangible proof





Fig. 2: Article use with adjective + proof + periphrastic genitive (selected collocations)


Similar results were found for criticism. Here it is worth remarking that the collocation criticism + devastating occurred only with the indefinite and definite articles (although zero seems possible), while the other collocations showed a clear partiality for the zero article.


Collocation (+ peri-phrastic genitive)

zero article

definite article

indefinite article

devastating criticism




further criticism




growing criticism




heavy criticism




implicit criticism




mounting criticism




strong criticism




widespread criticism





Fig. 3: Article use with adjective + criticism + periphrastic genitive (selected collocations)


In the case of nouns such as investigation, which allow a relatively sharp line to be drawn between their count and non-count meanings, there emerge clear patterns of use associated with each meaning, with the non-count noun tending to occur with the definite or indefinite articles. Empirical investigation is a clear example of a count-noun use that is never preceded by the zero article.


Collocation (+ peri-phrastic genitive)

zero article

definite article

indefinite article

detailed investigation




empirical investigation




intensive investigation




systematic investigation




thorough investigation





Fig. 4: Article use with adjective + investigation + periphrastic genitive (selected collocations)


3.2 Abstract Nouns Postmodified by Other Types of of-phrases


Let us now turn to a second set of examples, where the of-phrase cannot be interpreted as a periphrastic genitive. Rather, it serves to specify the size, extent or quality of the phenomenon denoted by the abstract noun:


(24)            The country will be lucky to achieve long-term growth of 1.75 per cent. (newscorp)


(25)            Efficiency of that magnitude would make it possible to supply most or all of the world's energy from solar-based renewable sources (...) (acadcorp)


(26)            No consensus for multilateral action of this kind exists, nor will it in the foreseeable future. (newscorp)


(27)            Classification of this kind has deep roots in the ancient universities. (newscorp)           


(28)            With musicianship of this order and intensity, Bychkov must have wondered  what he could do to get in on the act. (newscorp)


(29)                   It is thoughtful programming of this kind - balanced, complementary, surprising - that stimulates and educates audiences, rather than perpetually pandering  to the lowest common denominator. (newscorp)       


Substituting a/an or the for the zero article in these examples yields sentences of highly questionable acceptability. In cases such as these, then, the zero article appears to be mandatory, a fact which is inconsistent with Quirk et al.'s (1985, 287) hypothesis that the  indefinite article invariably becomes more acceptable if the abstract noun is pre- and/or postmodified.

In the search for an explanation one might, on first thought, assume that the abstract non-count nouns in question never take an article. This is far from the case, however, as the following examples demonstrate (for action and classification, see the standard monolingual dictionaries):


(30)            Although the profession as a whole had enjoyed a steady growth in income over the past few years, that growth appeared to have reached a plateau. (newscorp)


(31)            Even Rumpole of the Bailey argues a case in Strasbourg in one of John  Mortimer's latest, excellent collection of stories (Rumpole and the Angel  of Death, Viking, Pounds 15) although the passage of only one year before  his client's case is heard by the European Court credits the Strasbourg machinery with an efficiency to which it can only aspire. (newscorp)    


(32)            (...) with the proper vocal training an innate and mature musicianship can show itself at a surprisingly early age. (newscorp)


(33)            If the majority did not have access to the spread of topics in the average quality newspaper, or even to an evening's programming on television, wouldn't the idea of an informed citizenry just wither away? (newscorp)


Here too, then, a more satisfactory explanation would take into account the nature of the linguistic environment. In this case the discourse lying to the right of the abstract noun, i.e. the specificative of-phrase, is of particular importance. It is noteworthy that the lexis capable of occurring in the of-phrase constitutes a distinct and definable set, allowing us to specify exactly the conditions under which the indefinite article has to be omitted from abstract noun phrases. The lexis in question falls into two major categories: 1) numerical information (24) and 2) nouns indicating size, extent or quality, such as kind, form, scale, intensity, calibre, magnitude, etc. (25-29).

When the of-phrase contains a noun, it can usually be replaced by preposed such. Indeed, it might be argued that the postposed of-phrase (academic detail of that kind) is really only an elegant syntactic variant of a preposed of-phrase (that kind of academic detail) which is no longer available for all the nouns in question. Note, however, that postposition becomes obligatory when the noun takes further specification, as in example (29).


3.3 Abstract Nouns Postmodified by a Prepositional Phrase Introduced by Prepositions Other Than of


A third set of examples illustrates postmodification by a prepositional phrase introduced by prepositions other than of. The choice of preposition is determined by the noun; common prepositions are for, in, on, from, over, about and by. This pattern is only implicitly discussed by Quirk et al. (1985), who provide no examples of it. Typical nouns entering the pattern are demand, reliance, emphasis, controversy, interest, acquaintance, experience, etc. Some illustrations follow:


(34a)          Demand for many marketed services has (...) remained stable over time, (...) (acadcorp)


(34b)          The demand for labor has decreased, the demand for capital has increased, so when equilibrium is reestablished wages will be a little lower than before the change and the return on capital, the interest rate, a little higher. (acadcorp)                 


(34c)          Recent strong demand from housebuilders is likely to tail off with housing starts expected to decline. (newscorp)


(35a)          Moreover, while he condemns art historians for excessive reliance on biography and social context, he makes ample use of their tainted findings  throughout the book. (acadcorp)         


(35b)          Yet, one of the chief impacts of an increase in the use of telecommunications networks is the closing of local branches and the reliance on less expensive electronic banking by phone and computer as bank consolidation and competition increase. (acadcorp)              


(36a)          This has been subject to critical evaluation by other authors. (acadcorp)


(36b)          There is only one formally normed test available in the United States, which yields scores for working memory before and at various points during and after training, as well as scores for amount of improvement with intervention, number of hints that have been given, and a subjective evaluation by the examiner of the examinee's use of strategies. (acadcorp)


(37a)          Current emphasis upon making education relevant for work - training for economic life - typifies these contradictions. (acadcorp)


(37b)          The emphasis on the social responsibilities of licensees rests on the view that 'the air belongs to the public, not to the industry'. (acadcorp)


(38a)          Recovery by private industry after economic recession alone will have little effect, (...) (acadcorp)


(38b)          The figures appear to confirm a recovery by manufacturing industry. (newscorp)


This third set resembles the first in that the use of an article tends to be optional in cases where the head noun is not premodified, as shown by the contrast between sentences 34a and 34b. Another broad similarity is that the conditions under which these postmodified non-count nouns take the indefinite article are difficult to determine. Again, much seems to depend upon the nature of the noun-adjective collocation.

In this respect there is one significant difference with the first set, namely that the zero article is at least ten times more common than either the definite or the indefinite article in the case of some high-probability collocations such as strong demand (+ for) (cf. 34c) or excessive reliance (+ on) (cf. 35a). Note, however, that collocational fixedness cannot be the only contributory factor, as strikingly exemplified by the strong collocation huge demand, whose behaviour is diametrically opposed to that of strong demand in that it usually takes the indefinite article. This may be explained by the fact that huge demand tends to occur in existential sentences (there is a huge demand for ...), whereas strong demand occurs in a wider variety of linguistic environments. Contrast the following typical examples:


(39)            But Guinness believes strong demand for its black lager will persuade other brewers to stock it. (newscorp)


(40)            There is a huge demand for electricity in many areas, but great  reluctance by the utilities to put in the expensive cables. (newscorp)


It will be noted that extraposition of the prepositional phrase does not normally have an impact on zero usage. Compare the following two instances of controversy:


(41)                  Controversy over the level of a statutory minimum wage under a Labour government is set to flare up again at the Trades Union Congress  (newscorp)

(42)                  Controversy continues over claims by Professor Peter Duesberg, a virologist at the University of California, that HIV is not the cause of Aids at all. (newscorp)          


A final point to note is that article use with the first set (abstract nouns postmodified by a periphrastic genitive) and the third set (abstract nouns postmodified by other prepositional phrases) may also be determined by the syntactic function of the noun phrase. There appears to be a fairly strong tendency for abstract nouns and abstract noun-adjective collocations that function as direct objects to take the definite or indefinite articles, while the same categories often take zero when they function as subjects. This has already been shown to be obligatory in the case of (2a) and (2b). By way of further illustration, one may contrast (1a) and (1b), (3a) and (3b), (8c) and (8d), (38a) and (38b) as well as (43) and (44) below:


(43)            Thomson has added a weekly flight from Manchester airport to exploit the growing demand for Goa. (newscorp)


(44)            Growing demand from Eastern Europe has put linguistic skills at a premium. (newscorp)


A further browsing of the corpora corroborated this hypothesis. It needs to be remembered, however, that such syntactic factors interact in complex ways with the other determinants of zero article use identified above. In particular, collocational factors appear to be able to override syntactic ones. Furthermore, it might be hypothesized that zero is more common in subject position if the subject is rhematic, but this is not confirmed by the evidence.


3.4 Non-postmodified Abstract Nouns in Non-generic Use


The zero article is normal with a number of non-postmodified abstract nouns even in cases where these are not used generically; this is the use that Christophersen noticed as early as 1939. While one might concede that this use identifies the class denoted by the noun "as an undifferentiated whole" (Quirk et al. 1985, 282), it is clear that the uses illustrated by the following examples are not toto-generic, nor strictly speaking parti-generic:


(45)            Tension rises in the packed classrom as 300 18-year-olds begin to fidget. (newscorp)


(46)            Reaction was at first predictable. (newscorp)


(47)            Controversy was reignited this autumn, when the Hayward Gallery in London was visited by the Vice Squad shortly before the opening of an exhibition of the work of the late photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. (newscorp)


(48)            Research shows that about the same percentage of law students were motivated by money and prestige to enter law in the 1960s as in the late 1970s. (acadcorp)


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:


(49)            Yesterday Ms Nicholson said: ''My treatment at the hand of the press was startling. The reaction in many quarters was blatantly sexist.'' (newscorp)               


This indicates that the usage in question is text-type-specific. A mentalist account might suggest that it provides journalists and academics with the opportunity of conceptualizing the phenomenon denoted by the abstract noun as indeterminate or as "lacking in clear outline and limit" (Hewson: 1972, 124). While this explanation may be acceptable with (45) and (47), it is unsatisfactory in the case of (46) and (48): (46) implies that it is easy to describe the reaction in question, and in (47) the noun research refers to one or two specific studies. In other words, while (45) and (47) may à la rigueur be described as "parti-generic" uses, we would clearly be stretching the notion beyond its limits if we applied it to (46) and (48). It seems 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.

Further support for this view may be derived from the relationship between article use and the position of the noun in the current text. Just as instances of zero usage in subject position outnumber those in object position, so the zero usage discussed in this section appears to be particularly common in paragraph-initial or text-initial position, where no anaphoric reference is made. Contrast the following two examples, in the first of which two forward slashes mark a paragraph boundary:


(50)            The SSRB report has found room for a big increase in the prime minister's and cabinet ministers' pay by recommending that they receive a full parliamentary salary of pounds 43,000 to recognise the fact that their  responsibilities as MPs continue unabated. At present, they receive a reduced MP's allowance. // Reaction last night was mixed. The veteran Labour MP, Alf Morris, who has campaigned for better pensions for MPs, welcomed the move. (newscorp)            


(51)            It showed no rail lines at all north of Perth; it proposed the axeing of virtually every Scottish rural line; it signalled, long before Thatcherism, the end of subsidised railways. The reaction was immediate and outraged. A campaign was launched by a group calling themselves the Scottish Vigilantes, and before long Highland communities were taking part in a remarkable series of protests meetings, marches, train journeys (...) (newscorp)


Manifestly, therefore, textual factors also play a part in determining zero usage. To this we now turn in more detail.


4. Textlinguistic Determinants of Zero Article Use


A cursory look at any extended span of text will reveal that lexico-grammatical factors alone cannot account for zero article use in present-day English. There are also some text-linguistic determinants of article use. Consider the following examples:


(52)            Who becomes unemployed?


The chances of certain categories of people becoming unemployed are higher than for others. _ Risk of unemployment varies with _ age,_  previous employment and _ gender.

The young and older men are most likely to be unemployed. Figure 2.23 (p. 102) shows the rate of unemployment among different age groups in January 1986. (...)

The risk of unemployment also varied depending on    previous job. The chances of unskilled manual workers being unemployed at any time, or for long periods of time, are greater than for any other group. Unemployed rates among this group are around 35 per cent at present.

(Abercrombie et al.: 1988, 99-100; underlines mine)


(53)            Let us take a simple example. A particular product proves to be increasingly popular with consumers. _ Increasing demand outstrips _ supply at the existing price, a shortage develops and _ price increases. This rise in _  price makes _  production more profitable. (Stanlake: 1989, 16; underlines mine)


Two points need to be made. Firstly, contrasting such sentences as "Risk of unemployment varies with age, previous employment and gender" and "The risk of unemployment varied depending on previous job", we note that that a wider interpretation of the well-known distinction between general and specific can account for at least some instances of usage: the first is a general introductory sentence which enumerates the three main determinants of the risk of unemployment. The second provides a more specific comment on a particular statistic, as highlighted by the use of the past tense.

The second point is that terms itemized in graphs, statistics and the like usually dispense with the definite and indefinite articles. Such is the case with "previous job" and, of course, "risk of unemployment", "age", "previous employment" and "gender" in the first exemplificatory passage. The same holds true for abstract nouns used in a non-referential sense. Thus, in the second exemplificatory passage, the noun "price" refers to abstract price mechanisms rather than the price of any one particular product. As with mass nouns, then, the definite article is used for specific entities or individual instances, while the zero article may be used for entities viewed as general abstractions or types. In other words, it is the writer's conceptualization of the entity being discussed and its textual environment that determine article use. Given an appropriate textual environment, almost any count noun normally used with an article may take zero. 

Let us now look at two related examples from medical texts:


(54)            (Vancomycin use has generated significant interest and controversy. The increased use of vancomycin has been linked to the emergence of vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) (acadcorp; emphases mine)


(55)            The AUR was strongly and positively correlated with the recovery of VREF on individual nursing units. By univariate analyses, increasing use of each antibiotic tested was associated with isolation of VREF but only clindamycin remained significant in the multivariate model. However, usage of various antibiotics was highly interrelated, and only clindamycin usage was significantly correlated with usage of all other antibiotics studied. (acadcorp; emphases mine)


The difference in article use between (54) and (55) may be accounted for in the following terms: in the first sentence "the increased use of vancomycin" is an observable real-world event that had a specific effect among a given population. In the second sentence "increasing use of each antibiotic" parallels the use of "price" in the above example; it is itemized as a statistic and correlated to other factors.


5. The Zero Article with Abstract Noun Phrases in German-English Translation


English syntagms containing the zero article are often easy to render into German, as shown by the translations of two randomly chosen example sentences (4a and 38a):


English: noun + periphrastic genitive

German: noun + periphrastic genitive

Growth of anything physical (...)

Das Wachstum materieller Objekte (kann nicht unbegrenzt fortdauern)

Recovery by private industry (...)

Die Erholung des privaten Sektors (nach einer Rezession hat, sofern sie allein auftritt, nur geringe Wirkung)


Fig. 5: Noun + Periphrastic Genitive in English and German


There can also be exact parallelism between nominal and verbal constructions in the two languages under survey (both the source and the target language sentences have been modelled on attested examples):


English: nominal or verbal construction

German: nominal or verbal construction

Although it would be premature to discuss the relevant principles at this stage

Auch wenn es an dieser Stelle verfrüht wäre, die entsprechenden Prinzipien zu diskutieren, (...)

Although discussion of the relevant principles would be premature at this stage

Obwohl eine Diskussion der entsprechenden Prinzipien an dieser Stelle verfrüht wäre (...)


Fig. 6: Nominal and verbal constructions in English and German


Sometimes, however, German has to resort to a verbal construction involving a sub-clause in order to render an English nominal construction preceded by the zero article. Here are some sample translations; note that the second translation also entails a shift in theme-rheme arrangement (again, the translations have been modelled on authentic examples):


English: nominal construction

German: verbal construction

Current emphasis upon making education relevant for work - training for economic life - typifies these contradictions.

Daß gegenwärtig der Praxisbezug der Bildung besonders im Vordergrund steht, d.h. eine Ausbildung für das Arbeitsleben verlangt wird, ist charakteristisch für diese Widersprüche.

(More than 50 per cent say that the situation in German companies should be improved.)

Classification by enterprise size reveals even more serious problems.

(Aber mehr als 50% der Befragten hält die Situation in deutschen Betrieben für verbesserungswürdig.)

Noch gravierendere Probleme werden deutlich, wenn man die Analyse nach Betriebsgrößen differenziert.


Fig. 7: English nominal constructions vs. German verbal constructions


Although a procedure commonly used by translators, the class shift under consideration has not yet received systematic treatment in the literature dealing with the translation of English nominal constructions (Friederich 1969, 1990; Krauss 1987; Gallagher 1986, 1989a, 1989b). The only way of determining whether such systematization is feasible in the first place will be to examine a more extensive body of examples. But this would merit a separate study.


6. Conclusion


This paper has discussed some of the deficiencies of state-of-the-art grammatical research with regard to the zero article in English. Two important conclusions emerge from our discussion, one specific, the other general:


1.      In modern English prose, especially in newspaper language and academic writing, it is customary to use the zero article in front of a large number of abstract noun phrases. The conditions under which the zero article becomes obligatory have been shown to be highly complex, a fact which makes article use a problem area for the large group of non-native writers and trainee translators. There is an acute need for illustrative material of the type here presented to be incorporated into textbooks of composition and translation as well as books containing grammar exercises.

2.      There remain many gaps in our knowledge of grammar and of its interdependence with lexis and text. Clearly, much interdisciplinary research still needs to be done to unravel such issues as determiner use. Indispensable in the process will be computer-based analysis of tagged corpora larger than those currently available by at least one order of magnitude. Such analysis will enable dictionary makers to provide more detailed guidance on the nouns entering the patterns here discussed and on the interplay between collocation and article use.

Translational aspects aside, two areas in particular seem worthy of further study. Firstly, the present research might be extended to abstract noun phrases postmodified by relative clauses (cf. example sentence 31 above). Secondly, a diachronic investigation might be conducted into the origins of zero article use with abstract nouns. It seems likely that the usage in question originated in newspaper texts during the first quarter of the twentieth century because it made for greater economy of expression or because a large number of count nouns were converted to dual-class nouns at the time. Due to the formative influence of newspaper discourse on the language as a whole, it may then have gained greater currency, spilling over into radio news and into academic English.


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