Bare plural noun pattern

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The bare plural noun pattern is a semantic-grammatical pattern with a simple noun phrase that is not marked with a delimiter (a/an/the). In traditional grammatical parlance, it is referred to as a zero-article (Ø) noun (lacking a so-called definite article the or indefinite article a/an). Bare plurals contrast with the bare singular noun pattern, and they contrast with marked nouns, especially plural marked nouns.

Examples of bare plurals include:

  • They love apples.
  • I depend on chocolate bars to survive my long study sessions.
  • The structure consists of pipes, steel bars, and plastic supports.


This analysis below is sketched out in Lee (2017)[1]


1 Basic pattern

The basic, default meaning is a set or group of things -- a set, group, collection, or mass of objects, items or entities. It is also indefinite, so it also conveys the meaning of being new, unknown, or unfamiliar to the reader or listener.

  • Bare plural pattern: A set or group of items, which is assumed to be new, unfamiliar, or unknown to the listener/reader.

For example:

  1. I need to buy apples. (bare plural pattern for set of items; unfamiliar to listener)
  2. I bought fried chicken. (bare singular pattern for material nouns)
  3. Here are the apples. (definite plural for a set of items known/familiar to the listener)


2 Advanced patterns: Specialized extensions

2.1 Generic / category descriptions

This pattern naturally extends to talking about all, or potentially all, members of a category, and thus, generic descriptions. This extends to encyclopedia-style descriptions.

  • Magpies are large birds related to crows.
  • Cheetahs can accelerate up to speeds of 70 kph.


2.2 Indefinite descriptions

Occasionally, bare plurals can refer to different types of something, when speaking in an indefinite or hypothetical mode.

  • Plastics have revolutionized our lives, but plastics have also altered our ecosystem. (i.e., different types and forms of plastic)
  • We are seeking men who know how to cook something more complicated than an egg.


3 Summary

Usage Examples Contrasts with
Group / set noun I need to buy onions, tomatoes, and carrots. Singular: an onion
Marked / definite plural: the onions (which I just bought)
Generic / category noun Penguins are flightless birds Specific item, marked noun:
A penguin just swam by. The penguin was a rockhopper.
Indefinite descriptions We need volunteers who are available on Saturday. Post-modified definite expressions, e.g.,
We'd like to thank the volunteers who came last weekend.


4 Teaching the Bare Plural pattern

Depending on the complexity of the task, students' levels, or the prompts given, these could include contrasts with other noun patterns. For example, shopping lists can include marked singulars (a watermelon), bare singulars (ground beef), and bare plurals (strawberries).

  • Writing shopping lists
  • Describe the items in your apartment
  • Writing inventories
  • Writing sample encyclopedia style descriptions (of any kind of item or concept)
  • Define and explain a concept from your field (e.g., an encyclopedic or generic description). Give examples, and explanations of its importance.


5 See also


5.1 References

  1. Lee, Kent. (2017). A “the” or the “a”? L2 learner problems and patterns. Korea TESOL Journal 13(2), 25-48.