Peter Gulutzan, MySQL AB Software Architect, worked with stored procedures for a different DBMS for several years. He is coauthor of three SQL books.

Question #1: I asked a friend of mine who is from the United States and he said that coauthor is absolutely fine with no article. But I don't understand why that's true. I'd use an indefinite article, if I had to write that sentence. So, why do you think there is no indefinite article in front of coauthor?

Question #2: Do think the following sentence would sound grammatically worse? If so, why do you think it would?

Peter Gulutzan, MySQL AB Software Architect, worked with stored procedures for a different DBMS for several years. He is a coauthor of three SQL books.

  • I would say the a is assumed even if not written, because a coauthor would be one of a fixed group of authors. – user3169 Jun 22 '15 at 21:44

Co-author is a BARE ROLE NP (bare role noun phrase). Bare role NPs are noun phrases that occur without articles or other determiners. They nearly always describe some specific function, role, job or title. Here are some more examples:

  • Bob was best man at my wedding.
  • They elected Bertha treasurer.
  • Who will be master of ceremonies?
  • He was king of all he surveyed.

Bare role NPs are very different from other types of noun that occur without articles. For example, they are very different from noun phrases with normal proper nouns (i.e. names), uncountable nouns or plural nouns.

The most important difference between bare role NPs and these other types of noun phrases, is that bare role NPs can only do a small range of grammatical jobs in the sentence. They only have a few syntactic functions. For example, bare role NPs can be Predicative Complements, but bare role NPs cannot be Subjects or Objects in a sentence. Proper nouns, uncountable nouns and plural nouns can do all of these jobs.

In the four examples above, best man, treasurer, master of ceremonies and king are all Predicative Complements. This means that they aren't a Subject or Object in the sentence. Rather they are a Complement of the verb which gives us more information about the Subject or Object. These words describe the Subjects or Objects of the verb.

If we want to show that a word or phrase is a bare role NP, there are some tests we can do. Firstly, does the word describe some sort of job or role? If it does it may well be a bare role NP. Secondly can we use this word or phrase as the Subject or Object in a sentence? If this noun (or noun phrase) can function as Subject or Object in the sentence, it isn't a bare role NP. If it can't, it may well be. Let's try this with co-author and compare it with some other types of noun phrase:

Subject test

  • Bob is great. (Proper noun)
  • Water is great. (uncountable noun)
  • Tigers are great. (plural noun)
  • *Manager is great. (wrong - bare role NP)
  • *Co-author is great. (wrong - bare role NP)

Object test

  • We love Bob.
  • We love water.
  • We love tigers.
  • *We love manager. (wrong - bare role NP)
  • *We love co-author. (wrong - bare role NP)


He is co-author of three SQL books.

The evidence further above seems to show that co-author is a bare role NP. First of all, in the Original Poster's example, co-author describes a particular role, or job. Secondly it is a Predicative Complement in the Original Poster's example. The term co-author describes he (Peter Gulutzan), it does not introduce a new person into the conversation. Lastly we have shown that the phrase co-author cannot function as a Subject or Object in a sentence. So the reason that co-author does not have an article here, is that it is a bare role NP. These noun phrases don't use articles.

  • The same thing all over again. It has no article because it has no article. What if it were a typographical error? – Michael Rybkin Aug 19 '15 at 20:06
  • @CookieMonster No, it has no article because when noun phrases which refer to specific restricted roles like this occur as PC's of a certain small group of verbs (including BE, BECOME, ELECT, APPOINT, for example) they don't need articles. That's it. Full stop. So it might be a typo - but there's no reason to think it is at all. It may just as easily be a typo if the writer had said He is the coauthor of several books. The the may have been a slip up just as easily! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Aug 19 '15 at 22:52
  • +1 I'm curious about some things, though. If bare role NPs can't be subjects, what is Doctor in this kind of utterance I've heard in several medical and dental offices (in the US): Doctor wants to see you again in two weeks. And I'm quite sure utterances like POTUS wants this bill passed asap are conventional. Yet certainly Manager is great and Co-author is tired, etc are ungrammatical. What are Doctor and POTUS in my examples, if not bare role NPs? – Jim Reynolds Sep 11 '17 at 2:55
  • @JimReynolds In your examples POTUS is syntactically a proper noun (i.e. a name). The doctor case is a bit more debatable, but I belive it's being used as a name here too (the abbreviated doc is very often used as a name). Don't know if that helps? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Sep 11 '17 at 12:42
  • 1
    Ah. POTUS as proper noun: of course. And yes: "Doctor" was used as a name in the context I most often heard it. I'll ask Doctor. etc. Whereas *President wants us to blah, blah . . . * is simply an unlikely nickname. – Jim Reynolds Sep 12 '17 at 5:18

This is what's called the "zero article" -- where the article is omitted in certain contexts. One of the situations is with titles, such as "He is [the] president of the university", where that "the" is optional. In this case "coauthor" falls into that category.

Read more about the zero article with titles in this other SE-ELL answer: psychologist John Hayes (THE, zero article before false titles)

As to question #2, no, it's equivalent. Adding "the" gives a little more weight to the title as opposed to the name -- see that "John Hayes" answer -- but adding "a" has really no effect on meaning or sound. Native speakers I think would say the two variants with about equal frequency.

  • Another reason for using the zero article is that it avoids certain ambiguities. If the sentence were "He is the coauthor of three SQL books", this would suggest that his coauthor(s) were the same in all three cases, although it would not actually assert it. – WhatRoughBeast Jun 23 '15 at 2:17
  • This is called circular reasoning. "zero article" means that a noun doesn't take one. So, what you're effectively saying is that there is no article because there is no article. And I don't see how "coauthor" is a title in this context. – Michael Rybkin Aug 9 '15 at 0:44
  • No, I'm saying that no article is a common structure that occurs in many situations, one of which is titles, which is the situation OP asked about. A full explanation of why zero article exists and applies to titles seems beyond the scope here, although you're welcome to try in your own answer if you're so inclined. – joseph_morris Aug 9 '15 at 6:25
  • @joseph_morris Perhaps if you included an example that wasn't an obvious title? You're also more than welcome (and are in fact encouraged) to include important bits from the article you've linked here in your answer. This clearly isn't a link-only answer but adding some supporting text rather than just a link would be very helpful. – Catija Aug 14 '15 at 15:07
  • Again, I think this is not a good forum for explaining the purpose, nature, and extent of the zero article; the question is about a title and the zero article, so that's the example I gave. Also, I did not link an "article", I linked another highly-upvoted ELL-SE answer of which this is, if not a duplicate, a minor variant. I did, however, add an answer to the second question that was added since I first answered. – joseph_morris Aug 14 '15 at 18:44

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