What is a determiner?
Determiners are used to introduce a noun or noun phrase. There are several classes of determiners: articles, demonstrative adjectives, interrogative adjectives, possessive determiners, distributive determiners, quantifiers, numbers, and predeterminers.
Determiners do two things: they signal that a noun or noun phrase will follow, and they provide information about the noun. They may tell us whether the noun is general or specific, near or far, singular or plural; they can also quantify the noun, describing how much or how many are referred to; or they can tell us to whom or what the noun belongs. We’ll look at each class of determiners separately.
There are two types of articles in English: the definite article, the, and the indefinite article, a/an. We’re just going to cover the basic rules regarding when to use definite and indefinite articles. If you would like to learn more, see the section on Articles.
In general, we use the definite article, the, to refer to an item or individual that is specific and unique. For example:
- “Close the door quietly; the baby is sleeping.” (There is a specific door.)
- “Please pass the salt.” (The speaker is requesting a specific container of salt.)
- “Jen is the woman wearing red.” (There is a unique individual wearing red clothing who is identified as Jen.)
The indefinite article, a/an, is used to precede a noun that is not a specific person, place, or thing. Instead, it indicates that it is a general member of a class of nouns. For example:
- “I’d love to have a pet dog.” (No specific or unique dog is being discussed.)
- “I heard that a famous musician is going to be there.” (The musician is unspecified because they are unknown.)
- “She had never been in an airplane before.” (The speaker is talking about airplanes in general, rather than a specific aircraft.)
Note that a is used before consonant sounds, and an is used before vowel sounds.
Adjectives and Determiners
Adjectives and determiners both provide additional information about a noun (or pronoun). But while adjectives provide descriptive, modifying information about a noun, determiners are used to introduce and specify a noun.
However, there are a number of categories of adjectives that are also considered to be types of determiners because they share the features of both:
- demonstrative adjectives (this, that, these, those), also called demonstrative determiners
- interrogative adjectives (what, which, whose), also called interrogative determiners
- possessive determiners (my, his, your, our), also called possessive adjectives)
- distributive determiners (each, every, either), also called distributive adjectives
Note that demonstratives and interrogatives are more commonly classed as adjectives, while possessives and distributives are more commonly classed as determiners. No matter which name they are given, though, their functions remain the same.
Demonstrative adjectives, also known as demonstrative determiners, are used to specify which item or individual is being referred to when it could be confused with others of the same type. There are four demonstrative adjectives. Which one is used is based on whether it introduces a singular noun or a plural noun, and whether the item is near or far in relation to the speaker.
- “This pencil is mine.” (The pencil is nearby, perhaps in the speaker’s hand.)
- “That pencil is mine.” (The pencil is somewhat far away, perhaps across the room.)
- “These pencils are mine.” (The pencils are nearby.)
- “Those pencils are mine.” (The pencils are somewhat far away.)
Like all adjectives, interrogative adjectives (also known as interrogative determiners) modify nouns and pronouns. English has three interrogative adjectives: what, which, and whose. They are called “interrogative” because they are usually used to ask questions. For example:
- “What book are you reading?
- “Which shirt are you going to buy?”
- “Whose computer is this?”
In each of the examples, the interrogative adjective modifies the noun it immediately precedes: book, shirt, and computer.
Possessive determiners, also known as possessive adjectives, are used to indicate to whom an item belongs. The possessive adjectives are:
his / her / their / its
- “My house is on Steven Street.” (The house belongs to me.)
- “Please give your sister back her pencil.” (The pencil belongs to the sister.)
- “Look at the dog! Its tail is wagging like crazy!” (The tail belongs to the dog.)
- “Can you fix the table? Its leg is wobbly.” (The leg belongs to the table.)
In addition to those listed, we can also create possessive determiners from nouns using apostrophes. We attach the possessive apostrophe to the end of the noun or pronoun that names the owner. If the noun is singular, the apostrophe is usually followed by an “s.”
This possessive noun introduces and modifies the owned object, and so it is considered a determiner as well. For example:
- “Dave’s car could use a bit of work.” (The car belongs to Dave.)
- “Could you help me find Jen’s keys for her?” (The keys belong to Jen.)
- “My parents’ house is on a beautiful lake.” (The house belongs to the parents.)
Distributive determiners, also known as distributive adjectives, are used to refer to individual members within a group or within a pair. The distributive determiners are each, every, either and neither. They are used to modify singular nouns or noun phrases.
Each is used when one condition applies to all members of a group equally. For example:
- “Each student must attend a meeting with a guidance counselor.”
- “Each person in my family does a fair share of the chores.”
- “Please give a pen and paper to each attendee.”
Every is used when a condition applies to all members of a group. It can normally be used interchangeably with each. For example:
- “Every student must attend a meeting with a guidance counselor.”
- “Every person in my family does a fair share of the chores.”
- “Please give a pen and paper to every attendee.”
However, every puts a slight emphasis on the group as a whole, while each emphasizes the individual.
Either is used when a condition applies to one or the other in a pair. When we use either, we imply that there are two options.
- “Either girl could win this competition.” (There are two girls. One will win.)
- “We could give the new collar to either dog.” (There are two dogs. One will receive the new collar.)
- “Either book would be a great gift.” (There are two books. One will be chosen as a gift.)
We use neither to state that not one or the other option is viable. For example:
- “Neither book would be a great gift.” (There are two books; both would be unsuitable as gifts.)
- “Neither table will fit in our kitchen.” (There are two tables; both are too large for the kitchen.)
- “Neither question is easily answered.” (There are two questions; both have difficult answers.)
Quantifiers are used to indicate an unspecified number or quantity of the noun being referred to. The quantifier we choose depends on whether it introduces a countable noun (sometimes called a count noun), or an uncountable noun (also known as a mass noun). Below, we’ll look at some of the most common quantifiers.
With countable nouns
These are some of the most common quantifiers that can only be used with countable nouns:
- a few*
- a couple (of)
- not many
Note that when we use these quantifiers with countable nouns, we use the plural form of the noun (with the exception of each).
- “There are many private schools in this town.”
- “Both girls went to the party.”
- “Not many people came to the book launch.”
- “There are fewer hours of daylight in the winter.”
- “She has read each book on that shelf.”
There is an important distinction between a few and few. While a few has a neutral or even positive connotation, few often has a negative connotation (usually signifying that there is less of an item than desired). Compare the following two sentences:
With uncountable nouns
These are some of the quantifiers that can only be used with uncountable nouns:
- a (little) bit of
- a little*
- “Could you lend me a bit of sugar?”
- “There has been a great deal of interest in my new book.”
- “Not much effort is needed.”
- “There wasn’t a bit of food left after the party.”
A little and little have the same important distinction as a few and few: a little usually has a neutral or positive connotation, while little often has a negative connotation. Compare the following two sentences:
With either countable or uncountable nouns
Finally, these are some of the most common quantifiers that can be used with either countable or uncountable nouns:
- a lot of / lots of
- plenty of
- a lack of
- “All customers are responsible for their belongings.” (countable)
- “All water contains oxygen.” (uncountable)
- “Don’t worry, we have enough cars to get us all there.” (countable)
- “I hope we have enough time to get there.” (uncountable)
Numbers can also be determiners when they are used to introduce and modify a noun. Both cardinal numbers (numbers signifying an amount of something) and ordinal numbers (numbers signifying rank or position in a list) are able to function in this way.
Cardinal numbers are used to count the specific quantity of a noun. As such, they can only be used with countable nouns.
In writing, a common rule is to spell out the numbers one through nine, and use numerals for the numbers 10 and higher. For example:
- “My father’s company has 10 cars and 20 drivers.”
- “I’m taking 12 shirts and three pairs of jeans on my vacation.”
- “There were 160 participants in the competition.”
An alternative rule is to spell out one-word numbers and use numerals for multi-word numbers, in which case the first two examples above would be written differently:
- “My father’s company has ten cars and twenty drivers.”
- “I’m taking twelve shirts and three pairs of jeans on my vacation.”
However, there are many variations of style for writing numbers. It is best to be consistent, or to follow the style guide best suited to the type of writing you are doing.
Ordinal numbers do not represent quantity, but rather are used to indicate the rank or position of a noun in a list or series. They have two written forms: spelled out and numeral + suffix:
Numeral & Suffix
Note that numbers ending in one, two, and three have different suffixes than the rest of the numbers.
As with cardinal numbers, the most common rule in writing is to spell out first through ninth and to use the numeral + suffix for numbers 10 and higher. For example:
- “He won first prize!”
- “I went to Las Vegas for my 30th birthday.”
- “I was the 42nd person in line.”
An alternative rule is to spell out one-word ordinal numbers, but to use the numeral + suffix equivalent for multi-word ordinal numbers. In this case, only the second example would change:
- “I went to Las Vegas for my thirtieth birthday.”
Again, no matter which way you choose to write them, the key is to be consistent.
Predeterminers are words that come before another determiner, especially an article (a/an/the) or a possessive determiner, to provide more information about the noun that follows. Predeterminers can be multipliers, fractions, intensifiers, quantifiers, or numbers.
Multipliers are words and expressions that modify uncountable nouns and plural countable nouns by multiplying quantity. For example:
- “I now earn double my previous wage.”
- “For this recipe, we need three times the sugar.”
- “This airplane holds twice the passengers as the other model.”
Fractions are used in a similar way as multipliers, but instead of multiplying the quantity of the noun, they divide it. We usually use of between the fractional expression and the other determiner, but it is not always necessary. For example:
- “I used to earn half (of) my current salary.”
- “These brownies were too sweet last time, but I found a recipe that only calls for a quarter (of) the sugar.”
- “One-tenth of all respondents answered ‘yes’ to the question.” (Of is necessary in this construction.)
Intensifiers are adverbs that modify adjectives and other adverbs to increase their strength, power, or intensity. The most common intensifiers that function as predeterminers are what, quite, rather, and such, and they are used before an indefinite article (a/an) followed by an adjective and a noun. For example:
- “What a gorgeous horse!”
- “She’s such a talented girl.”
- “It’s quite an incredible house, don’t you think?”
- “They’re rather a nice group of students.”
(Note that, as intensifiers, the words quite and rather are more common in British English than American English.)
Quantifiers and numbers
All of the quantifiers and numbers that we looked at previously can function as predeterminers when used before the preposition of and a different determiner. Like with fractions, of can sometimes be omitted, although it is required for some words.
While quantifiers are normally used to indicate the number or quantity of a noun in general, when used as predeterminers they indicate the number or quantity of people or things within a particular group or set. Let’s look at some examples of how the meaning of a sentence changes if a quantifier is being used as a determiner or a predeterminer:
- “Let’s eat some sandwiches.” (Indicates small but unspecified number of sandwiches.)
- “Let’s eat some of the sandwiches.” (Indicates small amount of the sandwiches that are available.)
- “Several people have already left the company.” (Indicates more than two or three unspecified people.)
- “Several of those people have already left the company.” (Indicates more than two or three people who were previously mentioned or specified.)
- “All birds are beautiful.” (Indicates that every bird in the world is beautiful.)
- “All (of) these birds are beautiful.” (Indicates that each of the birds indicated is beautiful. Note that of in this case is optional.)
Sometimes, we can use a term as either a quantifier or a predeterminer with no appreciable difference in meaning. For example:
- “Both brothers are millionaires.”
- “Both (of) the brothers are millionaires.”
- “There is a little salad left.”
- “There is a little of the salad left.”
Finally, there is one quantifying determiner that can only be used as a predeterminer: none. While it can function as a pronoun or an adverb in other contexts, when introducing and describing a noun it must be followed by of and an article or other determiner. For example:
- “None of her friends showed up.”
- “I can’t believe none of the tickets are left.”
Just like quantifiers, we can use both cardinal and ordinal numbers as predeterminers using the preposition of followed by an article or other determiner. Cardinal numbers are used to indicate an amount, while ordinal numbers are used to specify the rank or order of someone or something within a specific group or set. For example:
- “Only two of the founding members are still working at the company.”
- “One of my shoes has a hole in it.”
- “She is the first of her family to go to college.”
- “He was the third of the expedition to reach the summit.”
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