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I am aware that articles are the modifiers, which introduce a noun/noun_phrase in a sentence, and by the rules of English grammar we should use an article before referring to a noun in a sentence.

However, I see that the above rule is not strictly followed. I have seen sentences where though a noun/noun_phrase is used in a sentence but an introductory article is not used.

Eg : Login to desktop and start the paint application [ Desktop is a noun, hence I expect either "Login to a desktop and ...." or "Login to the desktop at the corner and ....."]

So please help me understand, when can an article be omitted ?

  • 2
    Asking when can an article be omitted is rather too broad, in my opinion. It's extremely challenging to spell out all the cases. Basically, we can omit articles when we don't need them. (Just like I did with the word "articles" before that "when" in the previous sentence.) A bit more precise, this is usually about definite-indefinite, countable-uncountable, and idiomatic usages. As for your Login example, you could treat it as a different English. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Headlinese for more details. – Damkerng T. Sep 12 '14 at 12:21
  • @DamkerngT. I totally agree with you. It is extremely challenging to list all the cases, where an article can be omitted. However, I guess by expertise one can list general cases where an article is omitted, and still the sentence remains consistent. I am looking forward for such examples. Thanks. – Flair Sep 12 '14 at 13:12
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There are various special cases, but in general:

  • You include an article in English whenever you have a singular common noun (which usually refers to a class of entities (city, planet, person, corporation)).

  • You omit an article with a proper noun (which usually refers to a unique entity, such as London, Jupiter, Sarah, or Microsoft).

Articles are optional with plurals -- not in the sense that you can include them or not on a whim, but that they change the meaning.

You should also not use an article when you use a possessive, like "my", or the adjective "one". (I'm sure I've seen other adjectives that take the place of an article, but I can't think of any right now.)

Maybe that's not entirely clear, so here are some examples:

You can start the application. "Application" is singular, so an article is required.

You can start applications. "Applications" is plural, so you don't need an article.

You can start Microsoft Word. "Microsoft Word" is a proper noun, the name of one particular application, so no article is used.

You can start one application. "One" takes the place of an article.

You can start his application. "His" is a possessive that makes an article unneeded.

If you use "the" before a plural, it indicates that you are talking about some particular set. Like if you said, "You can start applications", that would mean any applications, but if you said, "You can start the applications", that would indicate that you are talking about some specific set of applications, not any applications in the world.

In your example, I would have written "You can log in to THE desktop". "Desktop" is common noun and so requires an article. Or perhaps in this case the writer is referring to some specific product called "Desktop" and so he is thinking of it as a proper noun. If that's the case, it should be capitalized.

  • 3
    I guess "this" and "that" can also take the place of an article (similar to possessives and "one"). Or "any", "each" or "every", but those have a different context/meaning. Another exception: you (usually?) do not need an article with a collective noun: "Wood is flammable", "Happiness is overrated", etc. And, if you count gerunds as nouns, then they are an exception, too: "Swimming is good exercise." – Scott Sep 12 '14 at 23:39
  • Yes! I knew there were other words. I don't know if a collective noun would be considered "singular", but yeah, they do not take articles. – Jay Sep 13 '14 at 2:03
  • And "some" popped into my head six minutes after I posted the above comment. :) – Scott Sep 13 '14 at 2:03
  • Thank you @Jay and Scott for your descriptive answers. This makes me more informed about when I can omit an article. The problem with my writing is, I tend to overuse articles. Thanks. – Flair Sep 15 '14 at 5:08
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The examples given by the original poster are written instructions, where a kind of "telegraph-ese" style is employed for the sake of brevity. That style does not reflect natural spoken idiom.

Place wax paper on countertop.
Place sandwich on wax paper.
Fold wax paper around sandwich.
Place sandwich in paper bag.
Roll bag shut.
Go to work.
  • 2
    We see a similar style in news headlines. – MackTuesday Nov 1 '15 at 22:31

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