I think the question is rather philisophical. I wonder if articles are used to make what we say more clear and using zero/indefinite article with the noun known or already introduced can be the reference to that noun or any other since we do not specify.

Like here:

I was walking with some friends. Friends were very funny.

We made a stop. After making a stop, we moved on.

The grammar tells us - use "the" when referring to something known. But what if I do not use "the" - can it refer to those friends/stop, since I do not specify? Will it be a lie to talk like this, and what do native speakers think in such situations? Will it really be a grammatical mistake? Thanks.

  • A very interesting question, Nikolay, especially regarding the second example with "a stop". Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 17:10
  • 2
    The grammar tells us - use ‘the’ when referring to something known. I think that single "rule" may trip up learners more than any other. It may be a good rule of thumb that helps you pick the right article around 85% of the time, but it's going to cause all sorts of confusion if you begin to believe it's the only litmus test.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 20:17
  • I am not sure I understand what you mean when you say 'since we/I do not specify'. Can you restate that?
    – user6951
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 18:30

5 Answers 5


Not a clarification, not optional

When you omit an article where it is expected, a listener thinks that you mean something different—otherwise you would have included the article. So, omitting it is not optional.

For example, if you say:

I adopted two cats. The cats, long ago, were worshiped as gods.

The second sentence means that the two cats you adopted were once worshiped as gods. A listener will understand long ago to mean within the lifetime of your two cats.

Removing the article changes the meaning:

I adopted two cats. Cats, long ago, were worshiped as gods.

Now, the second cats doesn't refer to the two cats you adopted. It refers to cats in general. A listener will understand long ago to mean probably thousands of years ago.

So, the definite article is not there to optionally clarify the meaning. It's there to maintain the thread of reference to the same cats. Without it, the thread of reference is broken, and cats must now refer to something else.

A listener can often infer your meaning but the grammar is still wrong

In your examples:

I was walking with some friends. Friends were very funny.

We made a stop. After making a stop, we moved on.

it's hard to tell what else friends and stop could refer to other than the friends and the stop mentioned in the first sentence. So, a listener will probably figure out your intended meaning, but the listener will also think that you made a mistake—or that perhaps he did not understand you right.

In the second example, a listener might wonder if you are talking about two stops or just one, since the indefinite article here would normally introduce a new instance and you would have said the definite article if you meant a previous instance. A listener can hear the second example as grammatical, though, by understanding you to mean make a stop as an indivisible concept, as if you had said “We stopped. After stopping, we moved on.”

It’s normal for a noun to be preceded by an article

It might help to think of “the noun” and “a noun” as the normal ways that a noun appears in sentences. You must have a special reason to omit the article. There are many of these special reasons, of course, and they occur frequently: talking about the kind of thing abstractly, a modifier like this or any or every which makes the article redundant, various kinds of nouns that don't usually take articles, etc. But if you want to think like a native speaker, then when you learn a noun, you should think of it with an article: “a friend”, “a cat”, “the steering wheel”, etc.

Notice that when native speakers define a word or concept, they usually precede it with the article that illustrates its normal, typical usage when it first appears in discourse: “a cat is a small, furry animal often kept as a pet”, “the stomach is the organ that holds food just after you eat it”. Notice that it’s not “a stomach…” Also, definitions usually indicate when a noun is not normally preceded by an article: “digestion is the process of absorbing food into the body.” (Nobody says “a digestion”.)

As an added bonus, learning every noun with its usual article also gets you accustomed to the rhythm of English: “da DUM da DUM da da DUM…” Speech without these little "up beats" leading to stressed beats sounds strange and a little hard to understand.


We made a stop. After making a stop, we moved on.

This is probably not how I would say this; I'd usually say something more like:

We made a stop. After stopping, we moved on.

But I don't want to dissect this particular example too much. The main issue here concerns using indefinite articles even when the item has already been mentioned:

The grammar tells us: use "the" when referring to something known.

I've insisted this isn't a 100% foolproof rule, so let me provide an example:

We needed a Christmas tree, so we went to a Christmas tree farm, where we cut down a beautiful blue spruce. However, as we dragged it back to our car, we began to wonder: How would we fit a Christmas tree in our little sports car? My wife groaned. "We should have come here in the truck," she said.

Now, someone too beholden to the grammar rule might be tempted to insist that we should have wondered:

How would we fit the Christmas tree in our little sports car?

After all, we know which Christmas tree needs to be crammed into the small back seat, right? It's that beautiful, freshly-cut blue spruce. And indeed, there's no reason we couldn't use the definite article there. However, the indefinite article works, too, because it doesn't matter which tree we cut down at the farm, we would face the same problem with any of them. Moreover, we'll have the same problem next year, too, if we're foolish enough to come back in the little car while leaving our truck in the driveway at home. Therefore, the indefinite article works just fine.

Personally, I like Macmillan's definition of the determiner a. It provides the definition people usually think of initially and mention:

  1. used when you are mentioning a person or a thing for the first time, or when the person listening to you does not already know about them : I have an idea

but it also lists eleven more ways the indefinite article can be used. I won't list them all here, but I'll list a few of them:

  1. used when you mean any person or thing of a particular type, but you are not referring to a specific one : I need an umbrella

  2. used when you say what class, type, or group someone or something belongs to, or what job someone has : Greece has been a republic since 1973; Ruth's father was a lawyer

  3. used before a singular noun that represents every person or thing of a particular type : A dog needs regular exercise

  4. used before a singular noun that represents every person or thing of a particular type : I'd like you to meet a friend of mine

  5. used before a noun that means a substance, product, food, etc. when referring to a particular type of it : Brie is a soft creamy cheese

These definitions explain why I get a little nervous when a learner says:

The grammar tells us: use "the" when referring to something known.

Yes, that's true – but it's not quite that simple, and there is more to it than that.

  • 1
    +1, this native speaker agrees: We made a stop. After stopping, we moved on. I would not say it with a or the stop.
    – Ming
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 0:49
  • Very insightful to mention that the repeated use of indefinite articles makes it sound like telling a joke.
    – Semicolon
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 18:17

I was walking with some friends. Friends were very funny.

I guess a native speaker will think that you've forgotten to add the before friends.

You have introduced a group of friends in the first sentence. The second sentence comes right after the first, and the native speaker will understand that it's the selfsame friends who were funny, but will be baffled why there's no definite article there.

Taken alone, without the first sentence, the second sentence will sound unfinished:

Friends were very funny. (strange)
In the old days, friends were very funny. (okay)

With the "in the old days" part, it will be understood that what is meant is "friends in general", not some specific persons. Maybe now friends are not as funny as they used to be, in other words. But without this part, the sentence would look strange, at least to me.

We made a stop. After making a stop, we moved on.

Initially I guessed the second sentence is okay, but a native speaker said we should use the after all, since we've made a mention of the stop in the first sentence. Then another native speaker said a is okay in the second sentence too. So let native speakers thrash it out. I've deleted my reasoning. It would be interesting to read their replies to your question.

Note that your "stop" example is not very natural. According to a native AmE speaker, he would have said something along the lines of:

"We stopped to take a rest. After five minutes, we moved on."

  • @F.E. - "Having made the stop, we moved on" - would this seem okay to a native speaker, I wonder. Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 19:07
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    @F.E. - Don't be ashamed of deserved fame! (0: Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 19:17
  • 3
    We made a stop. After making a stop, we moved on. I'm a native speaker and I have no problem with that as-is. Sure, the word "the" could be used in the second sentence, but it's not necessary. Insisting that a definite article needs to be used just because of an earlier mention is too dogmatic, too pedantic, and too formulaic.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 20:20
  • 2
    This native speaker finds the "the" in the second sentence very close to necessary. I'll try to explain a little in another answer.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 20:29
  • 1
    I still think you should keep the "police stop" excerpt in your post. :)
    – F.E.
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 21:45

I'd like to look a bit more at the OP's 2nd example:

"We made a stop. After making a stop, we moved on."

My first impression was that that second "a" needed to be a "the" -- me being an AmE speaker.

I was initially seeing the double "a" version as being marked, and that, at first blush, it might be seen as being spoken by an EFL speaker or is being used within the context of someone telling a story or joke. The format of a possible joke being: "I buy a soda. I drink a soda. I buy a sandwich. I eat a sandwich. etc. and then the punchline."

But then I noticed that the OP's pattern seems to work better when the sentence is a bit more vulgar:

  1. "We made a piss. After making a piss, we moved on."

It becomes even better when we use a different light verb--"take" instead of "make":

  1. "We took a piss. After taking a piss, we moved on." -- (okay)

which seems okay to me. Now if we switch light verbs from "make" to "take" in the OP's example:

  1. "We took a stop. After taking a stop, we moved on." -- (dubious)

which might be a little better than the OP's original (with the idea that "We took a stop" to mean something like "We took a break", where the "a break" version is fine); but there's a problem in that "a stop" doesn't seem to work as well as "a piss". A nap seems to work:

  1. "We took a nap. After taking a nap, we moved on." -- (good)

So using "a nap" is fine. Now let's go back and try the original OP's light verb "make" with "a nap":

  1. "We made a nap. After making a nap, we moved on." -- (bad)

which doesn't work. So there seems to be two main issues here:

  • One: choice of light verb -- "make" versus "take".

  • Two: choice of NP complement for that light verb -- "a stop" vs "a piss" vs "a nap" vs etc.

There could also be a third issue: dialect.

I suspect that the acceptability of the OP's version might depend on the regional dialect of the different speakers. (Though, I would still consider it to be non-standard, from an AmE perspective. But I could be wrong.)

Grammar-wise, the light verb stuff seems to be in the middle of some ongoing changes, and those changes are not uniform throughout the English speaking regions. (Someone could look into light verbs a bit more and explain what seems to be going on, such as the possible constraints that the different light verbs have regarding their NP complements.)

  • 2
    Interesting thoughts. I'm inclined to think the difference is more due to the noun (stop vs. nap) than the verb (make vs. take).
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 1:08
  • We made a nap is bad because 'to make a nap' is not idiomatic. So even if you say We made the nap it's still bad. I agree with what he @J.R. said.
    – user6951
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 5:43
  • 1
    Unless it's nap in the Shakespearean sense of "..to dress the commonwealth, and turn it, and set a new nap upon it". (0: P.S. A very interesting explanation, F.E.! Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 18:42
  • 1
    I've dug up this treatise. It gets interesting on page 18: "True Light Verbs vs. Vague Action Verbs". Who gave the groan just now? (Error: no definite article for TLVs) A groan was given by the man on the right. (Error: no passivization for TLVs) I gave a groan, then gave it again (Error: no pronominalization for TLVs) Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 19:59
  • 1
    @CopperKettle Thanks! I'll go and take a look at it. :)
    – F.E.
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 20:23

The question asks if we can use either the Zero-article or indefinite article to reference an 'already-mentioned noun'. An example of each was supplied by means of a sentence pair. This is good, because questions about article usage are best asked with regards to a particular context. Thus, this answer will attempt to limit itself to the provided context.

I was walking with some friends. Friends were very funny.

It is not a natural use of Friends to refer back to some friends. To naturally do this, we would normally use one of three determiners that indicate definiteness:

a) the definite article, the, which you did not want to use
b) the demonstrative pronoun, these
c) a possessive pronoun, such as my or our

Despite the lack of any of these three types of determiners, we would probably interpret Friends to refer to some friends, but we would do so only because that is the most likely meaning of this unnatural usage.

We use the Zero-article before a plural count noun in the following:

1 in a generic noun phrase
Ants have lived in Africa for centuries.

2 to indicate an indefinite amount
Ants were crawling all over our picnic basket.
I woke up and all I could see were trees.

In your sentence pair, you mention some friends. This refers to specific friends, but it does so in an indefinite manner (thus this usage of some functions as a plural indefinite article). Since you have referred to specific friends in your first sentence, in normal daily discourse it would be rare for Friends in the second sentence to have a generic reference. Therefore your listener or reader would most likely interpret Friends to refer back to some friends. But they would do this by default. And your listener would also characterize this as nonnatural and ungrammatical.

We made a stop. After making a stop, we moved on.

It is possible for the second a stop to refer back to a stop, but this is most likely due to the similarity of construction ('made a stop' and 'after making a stop'). We use every possible clue to interpret meaning, and here the similarity in construction allows a listener to infer that the speaker intends the second a stop to refer to the first a stop. Still, this is only an inference.

In a dissimilar construction, the interpretation is even less likely. For instance, in

We saw a blackbird. A blackbird flew away.

It is much less clear (if clear at all) that the second a blackbird refers to the first a blackbird.

In both cases, the speaker would normally use one of three determiners of definiteness to make it explicit that he is talking about the same stop, or blackbird:

We made a stop. After making the/this/our stop, we moved on.
We saw a blackbird. The/this/our blackbird flew away.

The following example is intended to show that my answer does not begin to cover every single possible use of articles.

There are times when, with continued use of the indefinite article, the same noun can be referenced. Consider:

I tell my family that I am going to see a (certain specific) Porsche today. I go to the car dealership and say 'There's a Porsche here that I want to see.' During the test drive, I say to myself 'I came to see a Porsche and a Porsche I have seen.' I thank the dealer for showing me a Porsche. I then go home and tell my family, "Well, I did it, I went and not only saw a Porsche but I drove a Porsche.'

That is 7 straight uses of a Porsche that refer to the same Porsche every time. These involve the use of a Porsche to mean a specific Porsche, a certain Porsche, and/or the assumption by the speaker that his listener knows which Porsche he is referring to when he says a Porsche.

Indeed, it is what the speaker assumes about his listener, and what he might want to reveal or hide from his listener, that determines article usage. This is true, whether or not the speaker's assumption is true. In addition, speakers have idiosyncratic uses. As such, these uses can override the norms that grammar describes. Furthermore, language allows for creativity. A speaker may 'toy' with his listener with his use of articles.

  • Actually, the last two instances of a Porsche don’t necessarily refer to the first Porsche. The listener might well ask, “Was it the one you intended to see?” The reason is, the would be the normal article to use if the speaker meant the original Porsche, so the listener wonders why the speaker chose a. Your general point is certainly correct, though, that there are situations where the indefinite article can clearly refer to a previously mentioned instance.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 11:13
  • @BenKovitz, If the speaker assumes that the family will know which Porsche he means by a Porsche then the example stands as written. I did not wish to belabor the point.
    – user6951
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 11:34
  • Indeed if there's a trade-off between slight incorrectness and belaboring the point, slight incorrectness is probably better. Regarding the OP's question about clarification, though, I wonder if there's something important going on here. The speaker can't reasonably assume that a Porsche will refer to the intended Porsche, because ordinary usage requires the for that. Saying a Porsche actually raises doubt. That's what the speaker would say if the intended Porsche had already been bought and the speaker had to see and drive a different one. What do you think?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 11:57
  • And yet within “I not only saw a Porsche but I drove a Porsche”, they're clearly both the same Porsche, since you can't drive a Porsche without seeing it. Saying “I not only saw a Porsche but I drove the Porsche” would be weird, suggesting that the Porsche with the definite article doesn’t refer to the previous one!
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 12:03
  • Hi @BenKovitz I tried a half dozen times to write an answer to the OP's question. I was dissatisfied with every attempted approach until I decided on the approach I did. When I came to the final section, I did not write it in as exacting a format as it deserved. As a service to the OP, I have edited that last section, based on your calling my attention to it.
    – user6951
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 13:20

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