I understand that with mass nouns you can use either a zero article or a definite article.

For Example, I can say:

  1. Pollution is very bad for you. = a general statement about pollution.(zero article)
  2. The pollution in England is very bad for you. = a more specific statement and so we use the.

The use of either article in the above sentences seems to be logical but what about sentences 3 and 4 below:

  1. The war between X and Y will go on for several years. = use of the.to describe a specific war.
  2. War between X and Y will go on for several years. = This says the same thing and contains specific information. It also sounds OK, but it uses a zero article.

What is the logic or rule involved here?

I have searched for a rule or context in which two similar sentences can use both article types, but can't find anything.

  • By the way: normally you would only use the word "zero" when talking about a count, and even then, it sounds mathematical. Since an article is something either present or not, you'd normally say "either no article or an article" and "uses no article".
    – user33415
    Aug 13, 2020 at 3:11
  • 1
    @GorttheRobot Not exactly. "Zero article" is a technical term in grammar and occurs whenever a noun is not preceded by an article.
    – Eddie Kal
    Aug 13, 2020 at 3:15
  • @Eddie Kal Master and others have argued cogently that there are two 'invisible' articles, the zero (least definite of all: 'the boys like Ø1 chicken') and the null (most definite of all: 'he will soon be crowned Ø2 king') articles. I think these grammarians would class the missing article in 'Ø War between X and Y will go on for several years' as the less definite variant, the 'zero article'. But the first comment here (ie not yours) would certainly be considered totally unacceptable on ELU, a site for linguists. Dec 16, 2020 at 14:38

1 Answer 1


The difference between 3 and 4 is one of the writer's perspective, which may be related to how the warring took place or not.

  1. The war between X and Y will go on for several years.
    You're correct, it describes a specific war. For example, the second world war lasted six years.

  2. War between X and Y will go on for several years.
    This version means that war will be waged for several years. It doesn't describe that war-like activity as a specific, delimited war, because for some reason, the writer didn't choose to. The zero article is more appropriate for war that isn't sharply delimited in time. For example, ancient Rome and Persia waged war for many years.
    The conflicts described as "the hundred years war" can be described with a definite article, or not. One could also say "War went on between England and France for a century."

There are times when an article is required, but nouns that have both countable and uncountable senses may appear with or without, according to how the writer chooses to look at them.

  • Even non-count usages can appear with the indefinite article. 'He took a pride in his appearance.' 'She received a fine education in physics and chemistry.' The test is acceptance (or not, as in these examples) of numerals: *'They took ten/10 prides in their appearance.' *'She received two/2 fine educations in physics and chemistry.' Dec 16, 2020 at 14:42
  • @EdwinAshworth I have heard "a certain pride", but not "a pride". In the case of the education example, it is looked at as a unitary thing, of which there are better and worse specimens. Is there a better word than "countable" to refer to such? Dec 16, 2020 at 15:54
  • (1) I suggest you check for examples (eg using Google ngrams); it's totally idiomatic unpadded. // This has been discussed at length on ELU. The CGEL stance seems by far the best here, with the numeral test not the indefinite article test being key. Note that furniture is still so rarely found in count usages that many would still call it a 'count noun'. (You can again search for 'furnitures'.) But we can count the things in the room ... 5 chairs, two tables ... The noun is non-count (usually; better to say 'is usually found in non-count usages') but the referents are countable.... The ... Dec 16, 2020 at 16:51
  • terms 'count' / 'non-count' are grammatical terms, applied to usages of nouns (not accurately to nouns themselves), but the referents may be etically (to someone who's been spared the foibles of the English language) countable (4 chairs, two tables ... that's six things to move so far ...). They usually (1 chair, 2 chairs) but don't always (24 pieces of cutlery, 6 head of cattle) match up. Dec 16, 2020 at 16:51

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