There is an entry at the oxford dictionary that begins with

The popular image of student life is of young people with few responsibilities enjoying themselves and doing very little work

Why didn't it say

  1. "of the student life"?
  2. "a student life"?
  • So if I say "a student life" I would be talking about one student, but "student life" means students lifestyle? – Sara Naseem Mar 13 '16 at 21:44
  • That's great thank you John, you have answered many of my question :-) – Sara Naseem Mar 13 '16 at 21:49
  • You're welcome Sara; you may find this page helpful as it has a lot of useful advice about when and when not to use articles. – John Clifford Mar 13 '16 at 21:50
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    To further complicate things: think student life gets dozens of hits in Google Books without the article, and none at all with it. But the student lifestyle gets several hits with the article, and none at all without it. No amount of grammar rules will "explain" why life and lifestyle are "different" - it's just established idiomatic preference. Some things you just gotta learn by rote. – FumbleFingers Mar 13 '16 at 23:01
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    @snailboat Would you mind pointing out what the errors were? – John Clifford Mar 14 '16 at 0:19

The popular image of student life ...

The noun life does not refer to a specific instance of life, but rather life in general.

Keep in mind that life here is actually part of a prepositional phrase which combined serves to qualify image. The sentence talks about an instance of an image and therefore that has an article.


In this case student is a noun adjunct modifying "life", to elaborate on what kind of life is being talked about. Without it, it becomes

The popular image of life is of...

which sounds fine. It wouldn't sound right if you added articles, because then without the noun adjunct you'd either be saying

The popular image of the life is of...


The popular image of a life is of...

which both sound off because you're talking about life in general; you don't mean an individual person's life, so articles aren't used.

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