Is it correct to use zero article in this sentence?



There is an exercise in Gateway B1 Student's book, page 13, where you need to choose the correct article.

The answer key for this sentence:

The results show that ∅ / the teenagers who eat with their families five or six times a week usually get top marks at school.

says that we can't have 'the' article here, but why?

In my opinion, we're not talking about all of the teenagers in the world (not talking about teenagers in general), we're just talking about a particular group of teenagers who usually have dinner with their families. Shouldn't we use 'the' article instead?

There is another sentence in the previous exercise: I don't like (the) food at school. We're not talking about food in general, right? And the answer key agrees with us saying 'the' is the only possible option here. Where is ∅/the logic?

Andrew Furletov

Posted 2016-09-22T19:21:12.587

Reputation: 273

5Does it say that you "can't" use the definite article there? Or merely that the null article is better? Personally, I think the null article is better, but I don't think the definite article would be incorrect. – J.R. – 2016-09-22T19:34:10.327

In case something is needed, I would prefer "those" as it refers to a specific group of teenagers. – user3169 – 2016-09-22T19:38:33.663

The answer key tells us that the correct answer is '0'. Anyway, I need to know why we can use zero article here. Can we also use zero article in my second example then? (about food) – Andrew Furletov – 2016-09-22T19:38:41.033

2I don't like the food at school means I don't like the type of food that is provided by the school. I don't like food at school (without an article) is not really correct formal English, but it means something like I don't like the idea that people should be allowed to eat any food while they are at school - and it makes no difference if they eat food provided by the school, or bring their own food. ("I don't like food at school" is a strange idea, but a teacher might say "I don't like food in the classroom" meaning "the pupils should not eat during lessons".) – alephzero – 2016-09-22T22:52:56.433


@AndrewFurletov Just a note that the zero article isn't the same concept as the null article. The zero article is the most indefinite article while the null article is the most definite article. Incidentally, I think that both the null article and the definite article are both fine in the example that you block-highlighted.

– Lawrence – 2016-09-23T02:56:11.587

In your question title you need to use a determiner before the noun phrase zero article. I suggest the. – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-23T11:51:56.323



we're just talking about a particular group of teenagers who usually have dinner with their families.

Nope, you aren't talking about a particular group of teenagers. You are talking about a type of people labeled "teenagers". When you do this, you don't use the article.

I don't like (the) food at school.

You also do not use the article if you are talking about things as a concept or in a general sense. You can look at this as considering "food at school" as a concept, or "food" in a general sense. Of course, if the particular food at school is something you don't like, then you use the article.


Posted 2016-09-22T19:21:12.587

Reputation: 31 841

2I agree with your answer, which is why I upvoted it. That said, I'd argue that the definite article could be used in that first sentence, because we might be talking about: (a) teenagers in general (in which case the null article is used), or (b) teenagers in the study (in which case the definite article could be used). – J.R. – 2016-09-22T19:47:06.010

Yes, they're teenagers, but they're not just any teenagers — not all of the teenagers dine with their families five times a week. Can we really call this a 'type' of people? – Andrew Furletov – 2016-09-22T19:49:15.297

2I think so because the context of the text is the results of a study. When analyzing studies, you want to draw correlations between things in order to make predictions or find out why something happens, and you want to NOT tie that to specific groups or people because you desire to find reproducible patterns that can exist in any group or people with specific characteristics. It's all well and good if specific teenagers get better grades when they eat with their families, but the study is trying to say that any teenager will probably get better grades when they eat with their families. – LawrenceC – 2016-09-22T20:02:03.080

1Thank you, now I understand it. So both options are correct, it seems, with a slight difference in meaning. – Andrew Furletov – 2016-09-22T20:12:57.107


This is a tricky one. The zero article sounds more natural to me, but using the definite article doesn't sound off nor does it change meaning.

The definite article typically does mean that we are talking about a specific set, but the absence of article does not necessarily mean it's indefinite for plural nouns. In this case, we aren't talking about a predefined set of teenagers we referred to before (that would suggest needing "the"), but we are taking teenagers in general and then qualifying with "who eat with their families" and end up talking about some portion of all teenagers.

If later on, we wanted to refer back to that set of teenagers, we would likely use the article then.

The teenagers who ate with their families five or six times a week also had better college application scores"

I don't like (the) food at school

This is different because food is an uncountable mass noun, but you have a similar error in reasoning. We aren't referring to a specific defined food (like "the food on that table"); we are referring to all food, which happens to be at school.


Posted 2016-09-22T19:21:12.587

Reputation: 4 363


Let me take a stab at answering this as well.

The question is justified and this is indeed a little confusing. However, notice that the "teenagers" case can refer to any group of teenagers that happen to eat dinner with their parents five or six times a day, not necessarily a particular set of them that you can point to. Thus the null article is more appropriate.

On the other hand, when you are talking about "the food at school", you really are talking about food that you can point to, it is the one at school, not any food that satisfies a random property.

In order to make this last remark more concrete, please compare "I don't like the food at school" with "I don't like food that is red". Notice that the second sentence has the null article since it refers to any food that happens to be red. If you were to say "I don't like the food that is red", it would mean that you were presented a choice of food and out of those you don't like the one that is red, again pointing out to a certain set and thus using the the article.

Hope that makes sense.


Posted 2016-09-22T19:21:12.587

Reputation: 131

2Hi. Welcome to ELL.... One thing you should know about this site is that we really don't use the backtick in answers. This is not a coding site. Please edit your answer and change the backticked phrases to italicized ones or 'ones contained in quotation marks'. – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-23T01:51:17.380

I like the backtick for terminology (null article). I do use it there, but not for longer phrases. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2016-09-23T11:18:52.320

@AlanCarmack I think that is a silly rule since the backtick has nothing to do with code or coding, it just signifies an inline quote (even though it may have started life as an inline code block). It does make the parts that are quoted stand out from the rest of the text in a way that italics or quotation marks can't. Notice that to get that effect the accepted answer has opted to use block quotes but that actually breaks the flow of the answer.

Having said all that, I am new here and have edited my answer to comply. Thanks.

– paracycle – 2016-09-23T21:01:00.137

FWIW, if we backquote something in an answer or a comment on SE, we'll get <code>...</code> in the HTML code. – Damkerng T. – 2016-09-23T21:09:13.340

That is not the convention here or on our sister site SE: English, aka ELU. I have to agree with @NathanTuggy that backticked text is ugly and an eyesore. Some people use it on long texts. But most people, almost everybody, ie, the convention, uses formatted text as in the accepted example.

– Alan Carmack – 2016-09-23T22:09:57.887


In my opinion, we're not talking about all of the teenagers in the world (not talking about teenagers in general), we're just talking about a particular group of teenagers who usually have dinner with their families. Shouldn't we use 'the' article instead? (OP)

If you are referring to the group in the study, then using a determiner would be proper, the or those. Notice the past tense verbs here:

The | those teenagers who ate with their families five or six times a week usually got top marks at school.

But if you are generalizing from the study and making a statement about teenagers as a class, then you would not use a determiner. Notice the present tense verbs here:

Teenagers who eat with their families five or six times a week usually get top marks at school.

So, OP's understanding of the grammatical rule about determiners is correct, but OP has mistaken a generalizing statement for a particularizing statement, and that error arose from not understanding the meaning of the tenses of the verbs.


Posted 2016-09-22T19:21:12.587

Reputation: 116 610

This was the answer I was going to write but you said it more clearly then I think I was going to. +1 – lukejanicke – 2017-01-30T11:06:43.777