Articles are always troublesome for those learning English. In fact, articles are an aspect of language that causes problems in general, because many languages don’t have them at all, and those that do never use them in exactly the same way.
The zero article in English is a rather misleading name in some respects, because it basically means a situation in which no article is used at all before a given noun or noun phrase.
Here are examples of all the different article types in English:
I have a friend from Sweden = indefinite article
I have an old sweater than I always wear when it’s cold = indefinite article when the following word begins with a vowel sound.
Last night I went to the cinema = definite article
New York has great restaurants = zero article
When should I use the zero article in English?
According to rules, there are a handful of specific cases when the zero articles, also known as the zero determiners, should be used.
With proper nouns
A proper noun is defined as a name of a person, place or organization, and that which has its first letter capitalized. Here are some examples of proper nouns:
Names of people: Charles, Tina, Juan, Adele
Names of places: New York, Belgium, Buckingham Palace
Names of specific things (a business, illness, etc.): Apple, Chicken Pox
Names of Days, Months, etc.: Monday, January
Note that there are some exceptions to this rule when the name is given to something that is comprised of a collective. Here are some examples:
The United States, the Netherlands, the European Union.
With plural nouns, more than one countable noun, and with uncountable nouns
Zero articles are used when we talk about more than one thing, or something uncountable (such as water), and we speak about that thing in general. For example:
I like dogs
I like children
I like water
However, if you want to speak about these things more specifically in a place, then you must use the definite article ‘the’. For example:
I like the dogs in this street.
I like the children in this school.
I like the water that comes out of the faucet in this country.
With abstract nouns
Unlike many other languages, English doesn’t use articles with abstract nouns, unless they are being attributed to specific things. For example:
Wisdom and knowledge are not the same things. (Unspecific, general example)
The wisdom of your father was gained through years of experience. (Specific example)
With institutions, when they are being spoken about for their given purpose
The zero article is never used in English when you speak about an institution for the reason that exists, but you introduce articles when you instead choose to speak about the building, or one example of such an institution. For example:
I go to church every Sunday (meaning I am religious)
I need to stop at the church on the way home (the building, which is a church)
Is there a church near here? (one example of that institution)
The same rules apply for the following places: school, college, university, prison, jail, hospital, court.
With some other specific nouns and combinations
There are more examples of categories of nouns that, for one reason or another, take the zero article. Sometimes, these categories can also be used with an article but with no change in meaning:
Directions: north, east, south, west
Seasons: (the) spring, (the) summer, (the) autumn, (the) winter
Games and sports: football, tennis, poker
Habitual places: at home, at work, in bed
Transport: by bus, by plane, on foot
Meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner
Noun + number: classroom 6, flat 74b, platform 3
How to get used to using the zero article
Of course, native speakers do not think about the rules when they speak, but instead rely on the sound of the expression. That is why it is so important to listen to as much English as possible. The sound combinations become familiar over time, and in combination with an appreciation of these rules, success is possible.
And of course, when you are writing, use a writing assistant such as Linguix that can assist in identifying all kinds of grammar, vocabulary and style mistakes, including zero articles.