“They used to follow Ø river”: The Zero Article in York English

Laura Rupp*, Sali A. Tagliamonte

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Speakers of York English (UK) use a zero article with definite singular nouns (e.g., “They used to follow Ø river”), which is impossible in Standard English. We probe the possibility that this form is a remnant from Old English, when there were no articles as they are currently found in Modern English, rather than a more contemporary development. We trace the diachronic trajectory of the zero article in historical-descriptive grammars and test social and linguistic constraints on its use in York English in a logistic regression analysis. The results show that information structure is a significant predictor of the zero article across all generations of the community and that the zero article is used in the same way as it was used as far back as Old English. However, it exhibits heightened usage among the older and younger generations, exhibiting a U-shaped curve. We suggest that this pattern demonstrates longitudinal maintenance of a conservative feature, which is suppressed in middle-age as the result of social pressures. In this way, this case study adds insight into the fate of dialect features in contemporary speech communities. It also highlights the importance of combining insights from different strands in linguistics for understanding the evolution of syntactic variants like the zero article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)279-300
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of English Linguistics
Issue number4
Early online date6 Sep 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019


  • age-grading
  • conservative dialect features
  • information structure
  • Old and Middle English
  • York English
  • zero article


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