What is a determiner?
Determiners are used to introduce a noun or noun phrase. There are several classes of determiners: articles, demonstrative adjectives, possessive adjectives, interrogative adjectives, distributive determiners, pre-determiners, quantifiers, and numbers.
Determiners do two things. First, they signal that a noun or noun phrase will follow. Then, they give information about the item. They may tell us whether the item is general or specific, near or far, singular or plural; they can also quantify the item, describing how much or how many are referred to; or they can tell us to whom the item 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 specific 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 he or she is 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.
Demonstrative adjectives, or 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 we choose from based on whether they introduce 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 my hand.)
- “That pencil is mine.” (The pencil is far away, perhaps across the room.)
- “These pencils are mine.” (The pencils are nearby.)
- “Those pencils are mine.” (The pencils are far away.)
Possessive adjectives, also known as possessive determiners, are used to indicate whom an item belongs to. The possessive adjectives are:
his / her / its
- “My house is on Steven Street.” (The house belongs to me.)
- “Please give your sister back her pencil.” (The pencil belongs to her.)
- “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.)
*Note that according to certain styles, its is typically only used when the owner is animate, such as the dog in the example above. To avoid using its with inanimate objects, some writers would use the … of the … structure. For example:
- “The leg of the table is wobbly. Can you fix it?”
In addition to the possessive adjectives 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 my parents.)
To learn more about using apostrophes to indicate possession, see the chapter on Apostrophes.
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.
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 also 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 present.” (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 present.” (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.)
Pre-determiners are words that come before another determiner to give us more information about the noun that follows. They usually come before the articles a/an and the. Pre-determiners can be multipliers, fractions, intensifiers, or the words both and all.
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 similar to 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.”
- “For this recipe, we need a quarter (of) the sugar as last time.”
- “One-tenth of the respondents answered ‘yes’ to my question.” (Of is necessary in this construction.)
The most common intensifiers are what, quite, rather, and such. For example:
- “What a gorgeous horse!”
- “She’s such a sweet girl.”
- “It’s quite a beautiful house, don’t you think?”
- “They’re rather a nice group of students.”
Usage note: The words quite and rather, when used as intensifiers, are much more common in certain varieties of English than in others. For example, British English uses them often, while American English uses them much less frequently.
Both & all
Both and all can also occur as pre-determiners. Both is used when we refer to two out of two options, while all is used to refer to an entire amount. We often use of between both/all and the other determiner, but it is not required. For example:
- “Both (of) my brothers are coming with me.” (I have two brothers, and each one is coming.)
- “Both (of) the books have beautiful illustrations.” (There are two books and each one has beautiful illustrations.)
- “All (of) my brothers are coming with me.” (I have several brothers; every one of them is coming.)
- “All (of) the books have beautiful illustrations.” (There are many books, and they all have beautiful illustrations.)
Quantifiers are used to indicate the 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 for countable nouns only, listed in order from largest to smallest quantity:
- a few*
- a couple (of)
- not many
- none of the
Note that when we use quantifiers with countable nouns, we use the plural form of the noun after the quantifier.
- “There are many private schools in this town.”
- “Both girls went to the party.”
- “Not many people came to the book launch.”
*Usage Note: There is an important distinction between a few and few. While a few has a more positive connotation of signifying that there is enough of an item, few has the more negative connotation of signifying that there is not enough of an item. Compare the following two sentences:
- “There were a few people at the meeting.” (more positive)
- “There were few people at the meeting.” (more negative)
With uncountable nouns
These are some of the most common quantifiers for uncountable nouns only, in order from largest to smallest quantity:
- a good/great deal of (formal)
- a load of / loads of / heaps of / tons of (informal)
- a lot of (neutral)
- a (little) bit of
- a little*
- not much
- “We have a lot of coffee already, so don’t buy anymore.”
- “Could you lend me a bit of sugar?”
- “Not much effort is needed.”
A little and little have the same important distinction as a few and few. A little has the positive connotation of signifying that there is enough of an item, while little has the negative connotation of indicating that there is not enough. 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:
- all of the
- most of the
- a lot of / lots of / plenty of
- a lack of
- “All of the recipes call for sugar.” (countable)
- “All of the sugar is needed.” (uncountable)
- “Don’t worry, we have enough cars to get us all there.” (countable)
- “Don’t worry, 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 alternate rule is to spell out one-word numbers and use numerals for multi-word numbers, in which case the examples above would be rewritten:
- “My father’s company has ten cars and twenty drivers.”
- “I’m taking twelve shirts and three pairs of jeans on my vacation.”
- “There were 160 participants in the competition.”
However, there are many variations of style for writing numbers. In the end, 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 are used to indicate the rank or position of a noun in a list or series. They have two written forms: spelled out, or numeral + suffix:
Numeral & Suffix
Note that numbers ending in one, two, and three have different suffixes than the rest of the numbers. A 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 alternate rule is to spell out one-word ordinal numbers, but to use the numeral + suffix equivalent for multi-word ordinal numbers. So, the examples above would be written as follows:
- “He won first prize!”
- “I went to Las Vegas for my thirtieth birthday.”
- “I was the 42nd person in line.”
Again, no matter which way you choose to write them, the key is to be consistent.