Some Nouns Don’t Need Articles

As a follow-up to my last blog post, which was about how to choose the proper article (a, an, or the) to use with a noun, I will add an additional note: Some nouns do not require any articles at all.

Nouns that do not require articles are less common than nouns that do, but there are plenty of them out there, and an English speaker is sure to run into at least one during the course of an ordinary conversation.

Nouns that don’t require articles fall into several general categories. I’ll start with the vaguest and hardest to describe: nouns that represent conceptual states or conditions. By this I mean nouns like “life,” “death,” “peace,” and “happiness.”

What makes this type of noun tricky is that there are different usages of each word. As with so many things, it just takes practice to know the differences. For instance, with the word “life,” you could be referring to a specific life, or to the concept of life in general. I could say, for example, that my grandfather lived “a” good life. I could also say that he was grateful for the gift of life.

Do you see the difference?

Similar shades of meaning pop up when we use the word “behavior.” I could say, for instance, that certain scientists study behavior. They are studying the topic in general. I could also say that “the” behavior of monkeys is an interesting field. Or I could say that a gorilla beating his chest is “an” interesting behavior. With these larger conceptual words, there are 3 degrees of specificity: the definite, the indefinite, and the overall conceptual state.

Another category of noun that doesn’t need an article is when the noun is a language or a nationality. We say, for example, that you are learning English. (Not “the” English, or “an” English.) An exception to this rule is when we are referring to the people of a certain land, in which case we would say: “the” English people are generally polite, etc.

Two other categories of nouns that don’t require articles are the names of sports (basketball, football, tiddlywinks, etc.) and the names of academic subjects (math, photography, science, etc.)

As with so many things in English, knowing which nouns don’t need articles is a matter of familiarizing oneself through practice.

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