learn it! title
Indefinite and zero articles
At or in school
Beginning and ending letters
posting a letter

Zdenek Berger from the Czech Republic asks about using the indefinite article and the appropriate way to word a letter:

I'm somehow confused whether I should have used the indefinite article in this sentence:

'First, you must ask to get a permission'. Though it is uncountable, I would like to give here an indefinite article, so which version is correct?

Furthermore, I'm not sure whether I should use at or in High School, and finally I would like to ask you about the first line I have written in this letter. Which one is the most appropriate when I do not know whether I'm writing to a man or to a woman? 'Dear Sirs' or 'Dear Sir or Madam': which one would you recommend?


Roger replies:
Zero article plus uncountable noun, Zdenek, is normally used for abstract qualities such as permission, honesty, greed, morality, philosophy:
  • 'Philosophy and psychology are rarely studied in [or at] school, though they are popular subjects at university.'
This brings me on to your next question, whether to use at or in with school. They appear to me to be interchangeable in most of the examples that I can think of:
  • 'She was at [or in] school when the accident happened.'
However, when the school in question is named, at seems more likely, thus:
  • 'At Highfield Manor, discipline was rarely enforced and outrageous behaviour was tolerated.

(Note the use of zero article with abstract nouns!)


Your question about how to begin and end letters is an important one. In a formal letter, beginning with Dear Sir(s) or Dear Sir or Madam are equally acceptable, but make sure you match these with Yours faithfully at the end.

Yours sincerely is used in less formal letters when the name of your correspondent is known, thus: Dear Zdenek or Dear Mr Berger would end with Yours sincerely. If you know your correspondent very well, you might begin with Dear Zdenek and end with either Yours or Best wishes.