Example taken from: Russia questions five suspects over Nemtsov killing:

However no information has emerged as to the possible motive the men could have had in killing the charismatic opposition leader. His allies believe his assassination was a hit ordered by the top levels of government determined to silence dissenters. The allegation has been strenuously denied.

Why not say by the top levels of the government? What do you think the difference would be?

  • 2
    This could be a regional difference. The author (twitter.com/franblandy) works for L’Agence France-Presse. AFP may have a different style than what I am used to (as an American).
    – Jasper
    Mar 8, 2015 at 17:43
  • 1
    @CoolHandLouis It's not just BrE... We would never use "the government" in this case, either.
    – Catija
    Mar 21, 2015 at 23:19
  • 1
    @Catija You're right... it's not just BrE, so I retracted my prior comment. However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that AmEng would never use "the government" in this case. Mar 22, 2015 at 10:07
  • @Jasper A friend of mine actually tweeted Ms Blandy and gave her the link to this post.
    – user6951
    Mar 25, 2015 at 15:46

3 Answers 3


... ordered by the top levels of government ...

The "missing" article is called zero article:


An occasion in speech or writing where a noun or noun phrase is not preceded by an article (a, an, or the).

In general, the zero article is used with proper nouns, mass nouns where the reference is indefinite, and plural count nouns where the reference is indefinite. Also, the zero article is generally used with means of transport ("by plane") and common expressions of time and place ("at midnight," "in jail")

  1. The indefinite article a (or its phonetic variant an) is used to indicate:

    • one of many -- I hope to meet a girl.
    • an unidentified thing (or person) -- I met a girl.
  2. The definite article the is used to indicate:

    • an identified thing -- I met a girl at the dance.
  3. The zero article is used to indicate:

    • generic plural nouns -- I have met girls in the past.
    • uncountable nouns -- I want to find companionship.
    • things in general -- The dance is at school.

It is quite normal for common nouns to use the zero article even in reference to a definite thing, especially as the object of prepositions. Everyone going to the dance knows exactly which school they will go to, but they have two options in talking about where the dance will be:

The dance is at school.
The dance is at the school.

Government is one of these common nouns that leaves the writer this option:

... ordered by the top levels of government
... ordered by the top levels of the government

One rationale for this flexibility is that the context already makes the identity of this common noun so definite that the definite article is implied even when it is not expressed.

A partial list of common nouns that can sometimes be definite without the definite article:

Institutions: church, college, prison, school, university & hospital (except not hospital in US English) ... :
I met a girl at school, but not: I met a girl at dance.

Places: work, home, bed ... :
I met a girl at home.
but not:
I met a girl at dance.

Meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner ... :
I met a girl after dinner.
but not:
I met a girl after dance.

Holidays: Christmas, Easter, Hanukah, New Year ... : I met a girl after dinner.
but not:
I met a girl after dance.

Transportation: bike, car, foot, plane, train ... :
I met a girl on foot.
but not:
I met a girl on dance floor.

For more detailed information consult:




I think it has to do something with 'jargon' and that's the reason, the journalist has not included the definite article before the word 'government' [However, I'm coming up with an example where 'the' is used in such sentence structure].

To prove this point, I'll bring in two references:

Reference 1:

David Marsh, Guardian Style, Guardian Books 2007 defines:

"Leaving 'the' out often reads like jargon: say the conference agreed to do something, not 'conference agreed'; the government has to do, not 'government has to'; the Super League (rugby), not 'Super League.'"

Taking this reference, I referred COCA, and was a bit surprised.

Reference 2:

"....levels of government..." returned 395 results. Examples:

"...had powerful supporters at the highest levels of government."

"They relentlessly target the military, defense contractors and the highest levels of government."

"The levels of government include: a) federal (both) b) provincial..."

And so on...

On the other hand,

"....levels of the government..." returned 21 results. Examples:

"And so this is still being discussed at the top levels of the government."

"Al Qaeda had been communicated directly to the highest levels of the government."

"...perhaps even at the very highest levels of the government, who were making money off of this..."

So to answer this question, I think it depends on the 'author's style'. If the author puts article, it might be to avoid the jargon (Guardian style) but if he does not use, it's not incorrect.



One gets the notion that the writer is either a non-native speaker or has a habit of poor word choice (seems like she learned her vocabulary from a thesaurus and not from lifelong use of the language) and awkward sentence construction. Given this, it's impossible to answer why she wrote what she did. And yes this is an answer and not a comment.

  • 2
    For me, in order for this to be a good stack-exchange type answer, the points you make need to be backed up with details why you think this is so. Mar 26, 2015 at 14:30
  • 1
    I am aware tht the user has deleted their account and can no longer respond to clarifications. But I find this answer beyond the pale. How this could have been awarded the bounty in preference to ScotM's answer is quite bizarre. No explanation, no supporting evidence, no reference just an anonymous user's opinion. Who is/was user6951?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 23, 2018 at 21:49
  • One saving grace, the OP has now accepted ScotM's answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 23, 2018 at 22:56

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