QUESTION: Does a singular noun always need an article?
ANSWER: No. In fact, I could ask, “Do you want to be a king?” or “Do you want to be the king?” or “Do you want to be king?” All three could be correct. Why?
Why indeed! A learner questioned my wording when I asked, “Would you want to be president for a day?” Hmm. Why didn’t I use an article before president? It came out rather naturally, and I didn’t pause to think why I had no article. As I reflected, I knew that “be a president” referred to the chance to be any president of any country in the world. That wasn’t what I meant. I could have used “be the president” to clarify that it was an opportunity to lead one’s own country, a specific position within a specific country. So why is a zero article also possible in this second case?
Biber and his co-writers discuss the use of the zero article with institutions, from public places to meals For example, I could write, “After church, the family had breakfast.” My use of articles is appropriate because I’m using church and breakfast as institutions. “What is important to note is that these structures involve nouns which in other contexts behave as ordinary countable nouns” (261).
The dictionary solves this dual nature by listing words like dinner as a countable and uncountable noun. That’s fine for meals and places, such as college and jail, but what about positions, like president? “President” is listed only as a countable noun in the LDCE, so we can’t say it has an abstract use. Biber explains that predicate nouns naming a unique role or position can appear with either the zero article or the definite article (262).
To help upper level students grasp this finer point of article usage, I offer a short activity. Please see my King or Queen_handout.
Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.
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