Why do we not use the definite article in "Where can I find the room 401?"

38

11

Last week in college, a student [with a thick South Asian accent] asked me:

"Excuse me, where can I find the room 401?".

I realized that to my native English ears, the word "the" sounded non-native. This had me realize that we sometimes use no article.

I am learning French; in French, we seem to always use some kind of article before nouns. It surprised me, at that moment, to realize that English doesn't always do the same! (That, and using the definite article in "the room 401" seems to make sense if I think about when definite articles are used).

Is there a grammatical name or concept for this "no article" aspect of our language? Are there any websites that can explain this to me?

silph

Posted 2015-11-21T06:31:09.310

Reputation: 709

2

I've wondered about this too. At the same time, we use the in expressions like "In the year 2525".

– CowperKettle – 2015-11-21T06:53:05.037

1"the room 401" is ungrammatical. Battleship Potemkin and "the battleship Potemkin" are both grammatical but "the room 401" isn't. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-11-21T16:20:59.807

3The other answers already say the important bits, but I thought I'd mention that, at least in American English, the noun may also be omitted in speech when it's not a particularly important place and the meaning is obvious. To use your example, one could say "Excuse me, where is 401?" and be understood perfectly, as long as you meant the 401 in the current area (building, complex, street, etc). – phyrfox – 2015-11-21T17:07:16.550

Not to be confused with the Room 101!

– Andrew Grimm – 2016-01-25T08:40:25.087

Excuse me, where can I wind the page 404? – Hannes Karppila – 2016-03-15T09:10:53.777

Answers

13

This answer addresses the two questions at the bottom of the body of your question, but only tentatively addresses the question in your title.

The grammatical construct where the article is missing appears to be called the zero article. There is also a book written about the zero article.

One might have thought that zero articles are used when the noun is inherently unique, since there is no need then for an article to distinguish any one of many from a specific one of many. However, English is inconsistent here. One example that has come up in a similar discussion is The Eiffel Tower. Another example (from the book, IIRC) is The Baltic Sea. In both cases, the noun is unique but the definite article is part of its name.

One suggestion is that we always use the zero article with names. In examples such as The Eiffel Tower and The Baltic Sea, the word The is considered to be part of the name rather than a separate article. Street names are similar. For example, "Where is Main Street?" has no article but "Where is The Strand?" does because The is part of the name The Strand. Note that this doesn't cover all cases since "I can design an Eiffel Tower" and "I can pave a Strand" are arguably acceptable. In many cases, though, this 'rule' holds.

In the case of your question, Room 401 is the name of the location, but the location is not so grand as to warrant having "The" as part of its name. The definite article is therefore not used before Room 401 in the sentence in your question's title.

Lawrence

Posted 2015-11-21T06:31:09.310

Reputation: 5 546

1+1. One can see saying "Where is The Room 401", if the subject were, for instance, a book. – Max Vernon – 2015-11-21T15:24:57.730

1@MaxVernon: I'm not sure what your point is.  Would you say "Where is The Fahrenheit 451?"  Or are you talking about books like The Color Purple, where the article is part of the title — which Lawrence's answer already addresses? – Scott – 2015-11-21T16:55:06.087

1Merely agreeing that the sentence might actually be "correct". – Max Vernon – 2015-11-21T20:37:13.093

2@Scott "Where is the Fahrenheit 451 that I lent you last week" is a perfectly reasonable English sentence. "Where is the copy of Fahrenheit 451..." might be more grammatically correct, but eliding "copy of" in conversation would be completely acceptable. – Mike Scott – 2015-11-22T10:16:12.207

2Where is the room 451 (located)? is grammatical. Also @MaxVernon. See this answer. – GoDucks – 2016-01-16T14:26:59.860

@GoDucks That's covered towards the end of my answer when I mention "an Eiffel Tower" and "a Strand". Note that the OP's question isn't asking whether "the room 451" is grammatical (it is). Instead, it explores why it "sounded non-native". Note also the main questions at the bottom of the OP's post: to name for 'this "no article" aspect' and for a reference that explains it. – Lawrence – 2016-01-16T22:20:07.690

(Oops, correcting an error in my previous comment: not to name for - just to name, without 'for'.) – Lawrence – 2017-10-04T14:18:06.993

21

The other answers may actually say this, but they are long and convoluted, and I don't see this in either of them.  So I'll just say it:

You don't use an article when you're using a name.

Cases where an article is part of the name, like The Hague, The White House, The Lord of the Rings, or An American in Paris, appear to be exceptions, but aren't, really.  For example:

  • Where is the doctor?
    but
    Where is Dr. Smith?
  • Is there a doctor in the house?
    but
    Is Dr. Smith in the house?
  • I dropped my keys on the street.
    but
    I dropped my keys on Main Street.

etc.  "401" is the name of the room, so you don't use an article.

Scott

Posted 2015-11-21T06:31:09.310

Reputation: 1 103

1+1. This is the only answer that's easy to understand and remember. – Guntram Blohm supports Monica – 2015-11-21T17:23:08.300

6This is straightforward (and I've upvoted it), but not quite foolproof. Occasionally we'll use articles in conjunction with proper names; e.g.: What happened to the McDonald's that was on this street? Also, when a proper name is used adjectively, we can use an article: I saw the flyer on the Room 204 bulletin board (although we'd omit the article when saying: ...on the bulletin board in Room 204). One other odd exception: we can use the to differentiate between a famous person and someone who happens to have the same name: Mick Jagger came over, but not the Mick Jagger. – J.R. – 2015-11-21T23:44:32.180

1@J.R. Your examples still follow the rule. McDonald's is the name of a type of thing in the same way that 'chair' is the name of a type of thing. Both McDonald's and chair could be any McDonalds or chair that exists, it is only when you add 'the' that you are talking about a specific McDonald's or Chair. "Bulletin board" can also mean any bulletin board, but what your example is really saying is "the bulletin board for Room 204." Mick Jaggar refers to anyone with that name, while *the* Mick Jagger refers to the specific Mick Jagger that most people would think of when they hear the name. – user0 – 2015-11-22T00:54:44.463

1@Bananable: No, "McDonald's" is a *name* (a proper noun), but "chair" is an ordinary (common) noun.  These are handled similarly, but not interchangeably.  For example, you are *the person* who posted the comment to which I am responding, but you are not *the Bananable*. – Scott – 2015-11-22T01:05:28.143

1@Bananable - Even if the restaurant wasn't a chain, I would still include the definite article: What happened to the Arnold's that was on this street? And if McDonald's is an "improper noun" as you allege, why does it remain capitalized? (The common noun version would be: What happened to the restaurant that was on this street?) The "rule" as stated here is: You don't use an article when you're using a name, and it's a fine rule, except, like most English rules, it has a few exceptions – like when the proper noun is used like an adjective: The Mars probe crashed in 1999. – J.R. – 2015-11-22T09:26:15.953

1Another interesting exception to this rule is when the name happens to be the name of a sports team. For some reason, when we refer to the team using only the city name, we follow this rule, but when we use the full team name, we typically include the article. Compare: The Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015 vs. New York lost the World Series in five games. This is one of those delightful oddities that makes ELL so much fun; the more I think about it, the more I marvel at it (and the more I understand how these seemingly simple things can vex a learner). – J.R. – 2015-11-22T09:32:00.477

@J.R.: I agree with most of what you’re saying.  I’m not sure about the bit about the sports teams.  For one thing, I think you’re complicating things by bringing the city name into it; we use the definite article (the Royals, the Yankees, etc.) when using the team name alone.  Part of this may be because they are plural (e.g., the Lincolns went to Ford’s Theatre) — although I vaguely that there were some teams whose names were singular, and the definite article was used (e.g., the Energy or the Dynamo) nonetheless.  … (Cont’d) – Scott – 2015-11-22T10:18:55.207

(Cont’d) …  For another thing, you’re drifting fairly far afield of “Room 401”, “Dr. Smith” and “Main Street”.  We’re not talking about a bunch of Yankees who are called (or named) “New York”; we’re talking about Yankees who are *from* New York.  So, I suggest that the phrase “the New York Yankees” is more like “a Stradivarius violin” (a violin by Stradivarius), “a Beethoven symphony”, “the Goldberg variations”, “a California wine” or “a Swiss army knife” than it is like “the room 401”.  More examples: Lake Ontario, Hudson Bay, but *the* Mississippi River. – Scott – 2015-11-22T10:20:02.367

1As for drifting far afeild of Dr. Smith and Room 401, I'll freely admit that I have. I'm focusing on that simple rule that was left out of those more long and convoluted answers. ;^) I wouldn't want our learners to spot that, lock it into their brains as a hard-and-fast truth, and then go around saying things like, "Hooray! Royals won the pennant!" But you've left a great answer that's given me a lot to think about. – J.R. – 2015-11-22T10:41:18.290

I would say the rule is if the subject is on its own a *specific* thing you don't use 'the' and if it can refer to many similar but distinct things you do. But you need to look further than what is in the sentence. 'McDonald's' when used in one way is an adjective describing the hidden subject of *restaurant*. This behaves slightly different than an adjective like 'red' because anything can be red and there is no implied subject, but if something is McDonald's it almost always implies a restaurant. – user0 – 2015-11-22T16:35:49.567

1Hmm. Consider: Whatever happened to the big neon ‘A’ that was atop the Arnold's on the "Happy Days" set? I think you'd be hard-pressed to label that "the" before "Arnold's" as ungrammatical, and erroneous to conclude that Arnold's must have been a chain. RE: if the subject is on its own a specific thing you don't use 'the' and if it can refer to many similar but distinct things you do. That may be a good rule of thumb, but the bay/lake/river example provided by @Scott illustrates exceptions. So do: The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, but: Hoover Dam was constructed in the 1930s. – J.R. – 2015-11-23T09:24:11.417

(Speaking of dams, there are some interesting tidbits here that might help the learner understand how usages of the definite article reach beyond the "referring to only a certain chair/talking about a specific McDonald's" usage that is mentioned in some of these comments.)

– J.R. – 2015-11-23T22:22:53.150

13

I've leafed through Quirk et al.'s "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language".

In the Note to Unit 17.88 they say this:

Postposed numerals and letters perhaps imply the ellipsis of the words number and letter:

"Line (number) 12"; equation (number) 4; room (number) 10A; ward (letter) C. If this is so, the phrases contain appositional constructions, with the number or letter being in apposition to the ellipted word number or letter, e.g.: "number 10A -> The number is 10A". We also find premodifying numbers and letters, particularly on signs like "No. 2 Platform, G Block". The following constructions are fully acceptable in onomastic use:

Number 3, No 3, (esp AmE) #3

Ch(apter) 6, Class 2b, Fig(ure) B, Section 10, Table 8, Type A

There is no type (a) with a definite determiner possible in the following use:

Are you in number 103? (NOT: "*The number 103")


The book's Unit 17.88 is titled "strict restrictive apposition" and describes the three types of strict restrictive apposition of noun phrases.

In type (a), the first appositive is preceded by a definite determiner:

That famous critic Paul Jones
the year 2000

In type (b), we have a reversed situation:

Paul Jones the critic

In type (c), the word order is as in (a), but we omit the determiner:

Farmer Brown
Soprano Janet Baker (esp. AmE)

The authors say that this absense of the determiner occurs when the first determiner "becomes a premodifier and resembles a title". This happens generally then the second appositive is the name of a person, and this is why we cannot say "year 2000" without a determiner.


So, naturally, since there's no expression like "year number 2015", we cannot elide "number", and the only option left is "the year 2015".

I'll need to look up Huddleston and Pullum's opinion on this issue, if there's any.

CowperKettle

Posted 2015-11-21T06:31:09.310

Reputation: 36 949

1+1. Thanks for linking to this question under the one I'd asked before. I deleted mine; it was (almost) a duplicate. – Færd – 2016-02-08T05:29:32.983

Why the downvote? – CowperKettle – 2016-07-26T09:46:24.367

I really like this answer. This would be the difference between "bus number 3" and "the number 3 bus". – Matthew W – 2019-01-22T23:37:51.763

3

We do use it, when we want to make a definite reference to it.

Where can I find the room 401?

This is a natural, grammatical sentence in English in a given real world communicative context. Hotel desks hear such sentences all the time.

When might a speaker ask this? Offhand, I can think of two or three examples, and there are probably more. I will stick to just one.

Let's say a person is walking down a hallway and sees Room 351, 371, 391, 411 but fails to find/see Room 401. He sees that the others exist and reckons that 401 exits also (maybe he knows it exists or only hypothesizes that it exists), but he is licensed by Engish grammar to go up to the information booth and ask:

Where can I find the room 401?

The phrase the room 401 can be taken as an elision of some such phrase as the room called 401, the room designated 401 or the room numbered 401.

If 371, 391 and 411 exist, he has every right to think, believe, assume that 401 exists, and so he can ask about it using a definite reference to it even though he has not found it.

The above is an unforced, natural (grammatical) complete, actual, natural, contextual, meaningful sentence, based on the communicative intention of the speaker.

The speaker, in the same context, could also, if he so desired, make an indefinite reference:

Where can I find a room 401?

Here, perhaps the speaker is a little less sure that 401 exists.

Incidently, suppose a guy is at a huge apartment complex and he is looking for Building 401. Let's say he can find Buildings 101, 201, 301, 501, you get the picture. In this scenario it seems more natural to me if he goes up to someone, anyone (guard, information desk, receptionist, passer by) and asks

Where can I find a Building 401?

or

Can you tell me where I might possibly find a building 401 around here?

I think he is probably less sure that 401 exists as a building in this scenario than he is sure that 401 exists as a room in the other scenario. For whatever reason, asking about the room 401 seems more natural and likely than asking about the building 401 even though the mental contexts are similar. Is this because not being able to find a building is less excusable than not being able to find a room?! But even asking about the building 401 is grammatical and possible.

user20792

Posted 2015-11-21T06:31:09.310

Reputation: