We can think of articles (a[n], the, Ø) as referrers because they refer an item (noun) to its context. In the blog ‘What are deictics?’ we understood articles as ‘pointers’ and in the previous blog we saw that ‘the’ can point in three directions.
But ‘the’ is not the only article that can point or refer. We can also use zero article (Ø). It usually functions as a class referrer.
So what is class reference? Before we answer this question we need to think about groups and individuals.
A class is a whole group or category of things, for example animals or fruits.
A member is an individual belonging to the group, such as a dog or an apple.
But a dog can also be a class. The word ‘dog’ includes the meaning of many different kinds of dogs such as big dogs, small dogs, brown dogs, spotty dogs, long-haired dogs, short-haired dogs, bulldogs, poodles, etc. etc.
Even one member from the class of dogs – for example poodles – can be a class (standard poodles, miniature poodles, toy poodles, etc. etc.).
So you can see that the difference between class and member is a matter of perspective: a poodle can be the whole class or just one member of a class, depending on how we look at it.
We express this point of view by using articles to refer to the noun. For example:
- I like Ø poodles (class: all poodles in general)
- I saw a poodle today (member: one specific poodle)
If we want to refer to a whole class we usually use the zero article (Ø) and a plural count noun. For example:
- I like Ø poodles (class: all poodles)
- Ø Apples grow on trees (class: all apples)
- Ø Koalas eat leaves (class: all koalas)
Notice that each example follows the general rule that a singular count noun cannot be on its own; you need to give it an article or a plural marker.
If the noun is not countable, we also use the zero article (Ø) and a non-count noun:
- I like Ø beer (class: all beer)
- Ø Rice is healthier than Ø bread (class: all rice, all bread)
To summarize, class reference is when we refer to an item (noun) as a whole class or category. We use the zero article (Ø) with either a plural or non-countable noun.