With most nouns, we use the definite article when we are talking about specificity. But why don't we use any article in such cases:

  1. She has the custody of her daughter.
  2. He has the possession of a gun.

In the above examples, we are talking about specific instances of those nouns, i.e., "the custody of her daughter', and "the possession of a gun"; then why don't we use any article here?

Note: With both countable and uncountable nouns, we generally use the phrase "the/a x of y", but with nouns like "possession', "custody" we have used "x of y", not "the/a x of y"; why is it so?

  • In cases like that, custody and possession function like proper nouns, like wealth or poverty. Possession of a gun in many countries is illegal.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 15:25
  • @Lambie We do use an article before the noun "wealth": "a/the wealth of something", but not with "custody" and "possession". Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 15:37
  • No, "we" don't. Wealth and poverty are serious subjects. Do not confuse x of y with just x. Sometimes, with x of y, you need "the x of y" but not here. Having wealth is a good thing.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 15:48
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    @Lambie, Ayden is not confusing x of y with just x, you are. The question is entirely about x of y, and in that context wealth does take an article ("a wealth of experience") but custody and possession don't.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 17:54
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    Does this answer help? ell.stackexchange.com/a/275891/61125
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 18:11

4 Answers 4


The rule with articles is that abstract nouns don't take articles unless they are specified.

Here's how you know if it's an abstract noun or not. It is possible for abstract nouns to be used with an article when they are specified (e.g. Risk scares people. The risk of being injured while playing sports can be reduced by using proper equipment and technique.). The problem with the two words that they are difficult to make specific.

Both possession and custody are, in fact, frequently used as can be seen on corpora (27k+, 13k+ on the Web Corpus and 1.4k, 1k+, respectively, in American Comtemporary English.)


Here are some examples from these corpora when they can be specific and used with an article. The examples show that possession can be used to specify both what is owned and who the owner is, but not the simple act of ownership.

  1. The possession of a work permit does not exempt the holder from visa requirements.
  2. Once purchased and in the possession of the buyer, it is the buyers responsibility for safe keeping of the tickets.
  3. How did Henry Jr. come into the possession of a sword and dagger if he was a simple husbandman?
  4. The land came into the possession of Spain by Right of Discovery made in the year 1492.


Same goes for custody. There is similarly frequent use. Here are some examples from the corpora:

It seems to appear only when the custodian is specified such as a particular parent or agency.

  1. In a letter to the Justice Department inspector general, the senator asked whether the current investigation also will cover the Bush-era supervision of the ATF in 2006 when, he said, " hundreds of weapons apparently moved beyond the custody and control of the ATF and possibly into Mexico and Arizona. "
  2. ...if a student has recently been discharged or released from the custody of the Department of Youth Services (DYS) and is seeking admittance or re-admittance into the District...

I have to admit that it is difficult to make this perfectly clear, however, I hope that others can comment on other possibilities or anything that I missed which should be added (or removed).

  • I respect your answer, but this has not answered that why there is no article before those nouns which was the motive of asking this question. The examples you have provided are the ones which use the definite article with those nouns, but my question was about not using any article before those nouns in cases like "to have possession of", "they have custody of". Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 14:49
  • @AydenFerguson but by showing examples of when articles are used by default Yuri has shown you when they are not.
    – mdewey
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 15:07
  • @mdewey but the entire question is that why no article is used before such nouns. Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 15:10
  • @AydenFerguson perhaps you need to clarify what you mean here by why. Are you searching for an answer based on the historical development of the use of abstract nouns in English?
    – mdewey
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 10:35
  • @AydenFerguson I'm not quite sure what kind of explanation you're looking for. For the most part, I'd say that for someone learning these words (this is after all English Language Learning) would usually be enough. Since it appears not to be for your purposes, I must ask, why are you asking this question in the first place? Commented Apr 25, 2021 at 7:16

If you look up in reliable collocation dictionaries, you'll find out that in collocations with the verbs, the noun "custody" is used without the article.

"Why?" you ask.

Because in that way it sounds correct to people who have spoken English all their lives.

With the article "the", "custody" is used when followed by the possessive preposition "of", as in the examples provided by @Yuri teacher English.

Please, see the collocations with "custody" here (cambridge.org) , here (freecollocations.com, and here (ldoceonline.com/).

As for "possession of something", it's, too, used without the article in collocations with such verbs as get, gain, take, obtain, acquire, lose, and others, as well as in set phrases "(be) in (full) possession of" and "have something in one's possession".

So, like you don't question the definitions provided in dictionaries, you just have to put up with the way the native English speakers collocate words, custody and possession included:)

  • [It, too, is used.]. Anyway, the reason you see them without articles is because they are abstract nouns.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 19:59
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    @Lambie Who said they are not? Even if there are times when we do use articles--when we are talking about a particular abstract idea--when we're using them in a general way (misery loves company), yes, no articles are used.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 20:29
  • You said it's because English speakers have spoken like that all their lives, when in fact, there is a reason, which I gave in my answer. Me voy, estoy hartíssima del tema.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 20:31
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    @Lambie: "And why do you suppose those dictionaries show them without an article? Because they are abstract nouns". Amen!:)
    – Victor B.
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 20:32
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    @Yuri.teacher.English Whatever you say:) I'm not into gainsaying someone with the user name containing "teacher English" even if English is not their mother tongue. BTW, there's quite an entertaining test on your site--in need of a slight fine tuning, though, IMHO:)
    – Victor B.
    Commented Apr 25, 2021 at 9:36

custody and possession are abstract nouns.

Abstract nouns do not require the determiner "the".

  • Custody of her daughter was hard to obtain from that judge.

  • Possession of a weapon is a serious offence in some places.

  • Custody of her mother was granted to her since her mother had dementia.

COMPARE: The custody of her daughters was granted at a special hearing. [the here is specific, and qualifies a specific situation.]

  • Custody is a complex legal issue.

  • You can be arrested for possession. [of drugs, weapons, etc.]

  • Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

COMPARE: The possession of great wealth is sometimes a terrible curse. [specific]

list of abstract nouns+ not complete, of course.

MORE ABOUT: The x of y:

See my previous answer about that:

x of y or the x of y and a/an x of y

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    Most abstract nouns are used with the determiner “the” (or even “a”) when we are talking about a specific instance of an abstract noun: “I have a good knowledge of how these things work”. Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 16:45
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    @AydenFerguson Oh my goodness. I provide the basic answer and you provide a sentence that is really not idiomatic. Good knowledge of a language is needed in order to teach it. You must have missed the lesson on abstract nouns. Patience (I say to myself) is a virtue. "a good knowledge of how these things work"=red flag, non-native. Knowledge of how these things work is not easy to explain to those who shut off their powers of reasoning".
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 16:51
  • I have a good idea of how these things work. Countable: idea.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 16:58
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    I'm sorry, but "Abstract nouns don't take determiners" or "don't take the determiner the" is one of those things that learners hear that is just wrong that then lead them to post further puzzled questions here. The study of science, the thought that I had upon waking, the desire to be better, etc. etc.
    – stangdon
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 18:37
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    @VictorB. Not at all when the word possession is used legally. "She did not have possession of the gun/a gun" at the scene of the crime.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 25, 2021 at 14:51

I don't know if this really answers your question, but I think it helps. There are two other verbs I can think of that are similar. They are "control" and "use".

For example "She has control of the entire estate" and "He has use of the car".

This makes me think that, since these are very similar verbs to "possess" in that they are very personal in their nature, that they must have come from a specific historical context in English. Also not sure how "custody" fits as a verb.

  • I agree, this must have something to do with the word itself. Even “custody” and “possession” have a very similar meaning. Other words which are synonymous to the word “possession” are used in the same way without any article before them such as: “ownership, charge, guardianship”. Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 7:39

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