Articles and periods of time: when nouns become adjectives

time periods and articles in englishIn English, we often refer to periods of time as nouns. This means we name the period of time, and it may be used as a subject or object. Centuries, years, months, weeks, hours, and times of day can all be specific nouns.

  • I do yoga on the second morning each week.
  • My birthday is in the third month of the year.
  • The 19th century was a time of great expansion.

In these cases, we use the and a particular adjective (often an ordinal number – one in a series) to define the particular period of time.

The use of an article in this case depends on the same rules that apply to general nouns. If we know the exact period of time, we use the, if we don’t, we can use a, or if we are referring to more than one period of time we can treat it as a plural.

  • This is the day of my birth.
  • It was a cold day in spring.
  • We can meet any day next week.

 

When a time period is used as an adjective

In English we often use nouns to describe the quality of another noun.

  • George Eliot was a successful 19th century novelist.

The describing noun is used as an adjective, so it does not require an article. But the noun it describes (novelist) does. In this case, though we know the 19th century was a defined period, we are not talking about the period, we are using the period to describe the novelist. In this way, the time period becomes the same as an adjective defining time, for instance old or new. So we use a for novelist, as she was one of many, and the adjectives, between the article and the noun, do not require articles of their own.

We can build the idea like this:

She was a novelist. She was a successful novelist. She was a successful 19th century novelist.

 

Using time periods as nouns is common when the time period represents a recognised style, or way or life, for instance referring to centuries, wars, ruling eras or art movements. This is because the period of time defines the qualities of the noun – just as ‘a Georgian house’ is associated with ‘the Georgian period’ for its particular style, ‘19th century industrialism’ is particular to ‘the 19th century’.

Periods of time are not limited to numbers: any noun that can be defined as a recognised time periods can follow a similar pattern. For example, seasons, wars, and important events.

  • Let’s visit Brighton in the summer. (or this summer) but I don’t have any summer clothing.
  • This is a fine Civil War rifle. but It was used during the Civil War.

 

If you want your articles to agree with the noun, to avoid confusing your adjectives and nouns look at the last word in the description. As adjectives come before the noun, it is the last word that is defined by the article, not the describing words in between. Take out the adjectives between the article and final noun, and the article should make sense:

  • She was a successful 19th century novelist. = She was a novelist.
  • She was the successful 19th century novelist. = She was the novelist.

The definite article would only be appropriate here if we were defining the novelist specifically.

 

For time periods, this may be useful if you want to identify a noun by the time it relates to.

  • We read novels from each century. My favourite were the 19th century novels. (it defines which novels)

But on its own:

  • I am reading a 19th century novel. (the novel is undefined)

 

When time periods can replace articles

The time period may take the place of an article if it defines a general noun, in the same way that a similar adjective would. This is common for generalisations or regular events defined by their time period.

  • I love old clothes.
  • I love 19th century art.
  • Let’s meet during afternoon break.

 

Articles and time periods Exercise

Complete the following sentences with an appropriate article or defining word.

Example:

He liked to read ____ 19th century books. (no article – books is plural)

  1. We visited ____ beautiful medieval castle.
  2. ____ 18th century boats were built to last.
  3. ____ 19th century school is still standing today.
  4. Please hand in ____ weekly report.
  5. Kyle had ____ summer classes.
  6. Who had the largest Empire in ____ 14th century?
  7. Is it time for ____ afternoon break?
  8. Of all the Renaissance artists we saw, I like ____ 15th century painters best.
  9. ____ 18th century France was a dangerous place for the rich.
  10. In ____ fifth week of the year, we will go on holiday.
  11. Our business group meets on ____ third Friday each month.
  12. The museum has ____ 20th century cars.
  13. Brighton Palace Pier opened at the end of ____ 19th century.
  14. Charlotte Bronte was ____  very popular 19th century writer.
  15. ____ Cold War bunkers still exist in London.

 

 

Suggested Answers

  1. We visited a beautiful medieval castle.
  2. 18th century boats were built to last. (a generalisation)
  3. The 19th century school is still standing today. (a specific school)
  4. Please hand in the weekly report.
  5. Kyle had summer classes.
  6. Who had the largest Empire in the 14th century?
  7. Is it time for afternoon break? (or the)
  8. Of all the Renaissance artists we saw, I like the 15th century painters best.
  9. 18th century France was a dangerous place for the rich.
  10. In the fifth week of the year, we will go on holiday.
  11. Our business group meets on the third Friday each month.
  12. The museum has many 20th century cars. (or no article)
  13. Brighton Palace Pier opened at the end of the19th century.
  14. Charlotte Bronte was a very popular 19th century writer.
  15. Some Cold War bunkers still exist in London. (or no article)

For more examples, and a longer exercise testing this use of articles, please visit this exercise post.

6 Replies to “Articles and periods of time: when nouns become adjectives”

    1. Hi Sue, interesting question – to some degree we could just say that’s just the pattern with the prepositions. I’d suggest it’s because a morning (or day, as we can say ON Monday, for example) is a smaller timeframe, while a month is quite broad, so ON indicates a more specific time while IN indicates within a broader range.

  1. Hello, Phil! Why do you begin names of the season and the word “century” in capital letters? For example,1. It was a cold day in Spring. 2. 18th Century boats were built to last. I’ve never met such kind of orphography in English textbooks before.
    Thank you.

    1. Excellent question Urila, one that I frequently trip up on myself! Using title case for periods of time like seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) or centuries, millennia etc., can be a matter of style rather than something that has strict rules. This is because it’s arguable that names for periods of time are proper nouns, naming specific times, as with days of the week. With centuries this is most common when we use an ordinal number, not a spelt name. However, most style guides agree (as you say) that these words should be lowercase – and indeed I would defer to them now.

      To be honest, it’s a bad habit of mine and I must update this post to reflect it, as I wouldn’t usually do it now – the reality is this article was written before I had compared different style conventions (which heavily favour the lowercase form).

      1. (I have updated it, in fact! 🙂
        Also, strictly speaking, most style guides would spell out century names rather than use ordinal numbers, e.g. nineteenth century. And would hyphenate for adjective forms, e.g. nineteenth-century writers. I haven’t done that here for the same reason I preferred using capitals – it makes it clearer where the times are being referred to. However, in more strictly stylised format, such as print, it’d be more common to see the numbers spelt out.

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