logo ELT Concourse: a language analysis course for teachers
Concourse 2

Unit 4: function (grammatical) words

cogs

This Unit is concerned with four classes of words which, when they stand alone, have no obvious meaning.  If, for example, you check in a dictionary for the meaning of a word like by, you will find that it has multiple meanings and that the meanings can only be made clear by giving examples in context so you can distinguish between, for example:
    She stood by the door
    It was written by Dickens
    North by north west
    The room is two metres by four metres

and so on (and on).
So, a questions such as:
    What does by mean?
is essentially meaningless because the person asked is likely to respond with something like:
    As in?

Function words are often called grammatical words because their job is to make the grammar of the language work rather than supplying meanings by themselves.
They only mean anything definite when they occur with content lexemes so, for example:
    her, was, in, the
mean nothing at all to most people, but:
    Her car was left in the car park
carries real meaning when we combine the function words with meaning-carrying lexemes.

The other distinctive characteristic of function words is that they belong to closed classes to which additions are very rarely made in any language.
We can happily make new nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in English to describe new ideas or new activities but we very rarely invent new function words.
It is, therefore, possible, in theory at least, to assemble a list of all the prepositions, all the determiners, all the pronouns and all the prepositions of English although in some cases, the list would be very long.
There are some of these linked from the list of lists on this site (new tab).

There are 4 sections to this unit and here's the menu.
Clicking on the yellow arrow at the end of each section will return you to this menu.

Section Looking at:
A Pronouns
Words that stand for other words.
B Prepositions
Words which link verbs and nouns.
C Conjunctions
Words which join ideas.
D Determiners
Words which control how we think about nouns.

Another set of words often described as function words concern modal and primary auxiliary verbs but, because they are somewhat different, the former are dealt with in Unit 7 and the latter in Unit 8.


Section A: pronouns


think

A task

In this list there are some true pronouns.
Can you identify them?  Click on eye to show the answer.

1 She was carrying her books
2 Mary and John don't think so
3 Pass me that one
4 The children argued with each other
5 It is difficult to do
6 Is this book yours?
7 Pass him those papers
8 The sun burnt my skin

In the list above, we have examples of subject pronouns (she, it), object pronouns (me, him), a reciprocal pronoun (each other) and a possessive pronoun (yours).  We also have the pronoun one which can be both a subject and an object pronoun.
As you see, we also have examples of words that look like pronouns but are acting not to replace the noun but to refer to it.
Section D of this unit tackles that area.

Terminology:
When we use a pronoun to stand for a noun (which is what they do), we refer to the pronoun as the reference and the thing it stands for as the referent so, for example in:
    John bought the car because he needed it
we have two references and two referents:
    he is the reference for the referent John
and
    it is the reference for the referent the car.
Notice that the referent can be a phrase rather than a single lexeme or it can be a clause as in, respectively:
    He said to put it under the table so I left it there
    He told me when she was arriving and I passed it on

who me

Personal pronouns

As the name suggests, personal pronouns refer to people (although one of them can also refer to things).  In the following examples, you can see how they work in English.  The pronouns are highlighted in red.

This sentence changes to this sentence with pronouns
This writer wrote the word I wrote it
These hosts invited the guests We invited them
The person I am talking to wrote the word You wrote it
This man married that woman He married her
This girl hit that boy She hit him
The stone broke the window It broke it
The people bought the cans They bought them
That baby woke these people up It woke us up

Here is the usual list of personal pronouns in English, with some notes:

  subject object
1st person singular I me
plural we us
2nd person singular you
plural
3rd person singular masculine he him
feminine she her
impersonal it
neuter they them
plural they them

Notes:

  1. There are three persons in English:
    1. First person refers to the speaker or speakers: I, we, me, us
    2. Second person refers to the person who is addressed: you
    3. Third person refers to neither the speaker nor the addressee but to someone else: he, she, it, they, him, her, them
  2. English distinguishes between singular forms (I, me, he, she, it) and plural forms (we, they) for most pronouns but does not distinguish in the second person when the pronoun is always you.
    Most other languages (especially European ones) distinguish between you plural and you singular and also between you familiar and you unfamiliar (the tu-vous distinction in French for example).
  3. Apart from you and it, English makes a difference between pronouns as the subjects (I, we, he, she, they) and pronouns as the object (me, us, him, her, them).
    Subjects and objects are discussed in Unit 5 of this course.
  4. The pronouns they and them are increasingly used for singular people when we do not want to identify their sex so we get, e.g.:
        When a student books they must pay the fee.
    Some people don't like this use but it is quite legitimate these days.

Take a little test to see if you can match the pronoun to its description.

The English system of personal pronouns is quite simple.  We have, in English, no way to distinguish between I masculine and I feminine or between they masculine and they feminine, for example.
We also have no way to distinguish different forms of you at all.
Many other languages are more complicated and have pronouns for, for example, we including you and we excluding you and lots of other forms.  Some languages have masculine and feminine forms of you and some even have the same two gendered forms for I and we.

possess

Possessive or genitive pronouns

It's my acorn  

Again, the system in English is quite simple but, again, there are some gaps in it.
Possessive pronouns stand for expressions such as my house, her car, their friends and so on.
Here are some examples:

This sentence changes to this sentence with pronouns
That is my book That is mine
Can I borrow your pen? Can I borrow yours?
She has a blue car The blue car is hers
That is his house That is his
I showed him our furniture I showed him ours
We borrowed their car We borrowed theirs

Notes:

  1. There is no genitive or possessive pronoun for it.  We can say, e.g.:
        That is its case
    but we cannot, in English, simply say:
        *That is its
  2. The form of the genitive pronoun for he is exactly the same as the form of the possessive determiner: his
  3. In the examples on the left above, we have used the possessive determiners (my, your, his etc.).  These are not, whatever you may read on the web, pronouns.  Determiners are the subject of Section D of this unit.  Be patient.
broken

Other pronouns

Something broke it  

There are a number of pronouns which can stand for people and things which are not personal because we cannot identify the referent, only the sort of thing to which the reference points.
Here are examples of the most important ones.  It is not a complete list but there are links to other guides with more details below.

demonstratives
finger
We shall meet demonstratives again when we come to determiners.
The words in questions are this, that, these and those.
Here are examples of all of them acting as pronouns:
    He wanted me to lend him the Greek recipe book but I couldn't find that
    If you are having difficulty opening the can, try this
    These are the books I wanted to show you
    These ice creams are great and I want to try those, too.
both, none, either, neither
2
    Both seem happy enough.
    She asked all the neighbours but none knew
    Give me one of those pens; either will do
    I tried both doors but neither was unlocked
some, any, every, no + -one, -body, -thing
door
    Somebody left the door open
    Everybody complained
    No-one understood her
    Anyone who wants to come is welcome
    Have you got everything?
    Have I forgotten something?
There are those who will tell you that we use the some series in positive sentences and reserve the any series for negative and question forms but, as the last example shows, that's just not true (see note 3. below).
the same
2
This is a common pro-form for noun phrases:
    I'm having a beer.  Do you want the same?
it, that, there, here
car
These three words sometimes function as pronouns (sort of) but can stand for phrases and whole clauses.
Many analyses, including the one on this site, prefer to refer to these items as pro-forms rather than simply pronouns but for teaching purposes, the distinction is probably unnecessary.
For example:
    She asked me to wash the car and check the oil and so on and I did it / that the next day
    She said it would be OK in garage so I put it there
    It seemed a good idea to keep the laptop in a safe place so I kept it here

Notes:

  1. None of these pronouns changes for person or when it acts as the object or subject of a verb so they are quite simple to use.
  2. When we use the some, any, no, every series, any adjective follows the pronoun so we have:
        Did you meet anyone nice?
    and not
        *Did you meet nice anyone
    etc.
  3. It is true that we use any forms in questions and negatives so we get, e.g.:
        Can anyone help?
        I don't want anything like that

    instead of:
        Can someone help?
        I don't want something like that

    but the second two forms are not wrong.
    We use the some series when we are fairly sure that someone can help and we can see something we don't like.
    The some forms are frequently used when we dress up a question as an offer as in, e.g.:
        Can I get you something to eat?
  4. none, either and neither are grammatically singular and both is, of course, always plural.
reflexive

Reflexive pronouns

photographing themselves  

English uses reflexive pronouns but does not have an obsession about them.  The language does not, for example, insist that some verbs are always reflexive as many languages do so we do not usually say:
    I washed myself
allowing
    I washed
to be interpreted as reflexive when no object is identified.
The pronouns we are discussing are:

First person singular myself
plural ourselves
Second person singular yourself
plural yourselves
Third person masculine himself
feminine herself
non-personal itself
*neuter themselves
plural themselves
*The use of a neuter plural form is increasingly common to represent a singular person not marked for sex.

Notes:

  1. These are referred to as co-referential (i.e., they refer to the same thing) in some grammars.  We don't say, for example,
        Sue wrote Sue a note
    unless there are two Sues, but prefer
        Sue wrote herself a note
    When we use an object to refer to the same noun as the subject, in other words, English uses the reflexive pronoun.
  2. English has few obligatorily reflexive verbs.  We don't, for example, meet ourselves (as we do in German), remember ourselves (as we do in many languages) or (usually) wash ourselves.  However, we can make many transitive verbs reflexive if we want to:
        I poured myself a drink
        She drove herself home

    etc.
  3. This is the area where English actually does have a full set of pronouns, even to the extent of distinguishing between you plural and you singular (yourself vs. yourselves).
  4. You may hear or (perish the thought) be tempted to use theirselves instead of themselves.  It's considered wrong in educated use.

learn

Learn more

If you want to discover more now about pronouns, go to:
personal pronouns
pro-forms
Indefinite pronouns
The second two of those links are to more technical guides.



test

Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of pronouns.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.


Section B: Prepositions


dinosaur

It's behind you

Prepositions in English usually come before a noun phrase and tell us the relationship between two things.  For example, in
    The man was standing on the street
the preposition, on, tells us the relationship between stand and street.

They are difficult to learn for a number of reasons.

  1. They do not readily translate between languages so, for example, we have the English
        She took it off the table
    being in German
        She took it from the table
    and so on.
    It is also the case that a preposition in one language may be translated a number of ways in English depending on the context and vice versa.
  2. Some languages do not use prepositions at all, preferring to change verbs or to insert postpositions such as
        She walked the road along
    .
    (English sometimes does this, too, in things like
        The whole day through
    but it is unusual.)
  3. Prepositions perform multiple tasks so we have
        I met her at the station at 1 o'clock
    where at is performing two different, if related, functions, referring to place the first time and to time the second time.
  4. Prepositions need not be single words such as on or off.  There are many which are two words such as apart from, out of or next to and some like as well as which are three words long.
  5. There is a certain randomness about the use of prepositions in many languages and English is no exception.  We say, e.g., in the morning, in the evening and in the afternoon but at night.

The prepositional phrase

A prepositional phrase consists of the preposition and its complement (usually a noun or pronoun).  In some analyses, you will see the complement referred to as the prepositional object.  That's OK, too.
Prepositions are structural or functional words and carry no meaning in themselves.  A prepositional phrase is generally the target of teaching, therefore.


common

Common prepositions

A list of all the prepositions in English runs to over 200 words but many are rare or obsolete words such as athwart, betwixt and pursuant to.  Except at quite advanced levels, these are probably best left alone.
There are far fewer common prepositions which form the majority of prepositional phrases.  Think of 10 and then click eye for a list.


think

Making sense of prepositions

The two fundamental categories of prepositions are time and place.

Some of the prepositions above can act in both ways (at 6 o'clock, at the bank), some only refer to place (beside the road) and some only to time (since 1940).
Here's a list.

Time only Place only Time and Place
since (the war, 4 o'clock)
until (7, dawn)
for (two hours, weeks)
till (midnight)
(six months) ago
through (the park)
beside (the river)
from (London)
into (the box)
next to (the house)
off (the road, the top)
onto (the table)
out of (the box)
above (the airport)
across (the street)
below (the plane)
of (a tramp)
on (Monday, the table)
over (a week, the town)
past (four o'clock, the door)
by (my side, 6 o'clock)
in (an hour, the class)
to (the end of the day, the corner)
under (a month, the table)
about (the house, twenty minutes)
at (the corner, 6:15)
before (4 o'clock, me)
towards (the station, dawn)

time

Prepositions of time


Preposition Use Example
on days on Monday, on my birthday
in months
time of day
year
period of time
in January
in the morning
in 1998
in two years
at night
weekend / holidays
point in time
at night (time)
at the weekend, at Christmas
at 4 o'clock
since from a point in time since then, since 2009
for a period of time for a week
ago postpositional for period of time two years ago
before earlier than a point in time before 9
to / till / until showing start and finish
duration
from now to eternity
until the end of the day
past / to time telling ten past, quarter to
by at the latest by 10 o'clock at least

Issues

since, for and ago
cause serious problems because their concepts vary across languages.  Errors such as
    I have worked since 4 hours
are common.
The word ago is particularly unusual in English because it follows rather than precedes the noun phrase.  It is, in fact, not a preposition at all, it's a postposition.
on, in and at
cause problems for similar reasons.  Teaching in the morning as a single item is a solution rather than asking learners to match prepositions to time expressions.
by
In many languages until is synonymous so you will hear
    Be here until 6 o'clock
(when by or before is meant).
place

Prepositions of place


Preposition Use Example
on attached
for surfaces
sides
public transport
media
on the wall
on the table
on the right, on the front
on the bus
on TV
in buildings
private transport
within
in the house
in a car
in a book, in a box
at exact place (relatively)
events
work places
in the station, at platform 6
at the party
at work, school
by, next to, beside lateral proximity by me
next to her
beside Mary
under lower than (often covered) under the road
over higher than
more than
from one side to the other
over my head
over 21
over the table
above higher than above the city
across from one side to the other
on the other side
(walk) across the road
(be) across the road
through between two limits through the park, tunnel etc.
to movement towards give it to me
to London
into movement to inside into the room
towards movement in direction of towards me
onto movement resulting in on onto the table
from movement away from the garden
a present from her
out of movement to the outside get it out of the envelope
get out of the car
off downward or away movement take it off the wall
get off the bus

Issues

relative exactness
in and at are often used in tandem to say that one position is more exact than the other.  For example
    She is in London tomorrow and arrives at Paddington
    When she's in the station, she'll ring and I'll pick her up at the entrance.
(Compare: I'll see her in the morning at 11.)
above, over, below, under
sometimes cause problems because above and below imply relative height but over and under often imply position exactly.  So we get,
    The plane flew below 5000 feet directly over the town
    I couldn't see the key because it was under the paper
    In future, I'll hang it on the hook over the door.
movement
is handled differently in many languages so expect error such as
    I saw it onto the table
or
    I looked into my pockets
.
Additionally, onto and into only imply movement but on and in can imply position or movement.
Out of usually implies movement but is often used by learners for position so we get
    *It's out of the box
rather than
    It's outside the box.
(There are also times when out of does refer to position:
    I left it out of the house
.)

Here's a diagrammatic summary:

preposition grid

Source: adapted from Quirk and Greenbaum (1973:146)

Here are two examples of how that might look converted to mini-video presentations and, yes, of course, you may use them in your lessons (and yes, we know that middle of is not a preposition but it acts a bit like one).

in | inside | on | under | above | outside | into | out of | off | between aboard | across | ahead of | behind | beside | over | middle of | in front of | through 

function

Other functions of prepositions

Considerations of time and place do not exhaust the ways in which prepositions are used in English.
There is a link below to the in-service guide to the other meanings of prepositions but, briefly, the words also manage to:

  1. Show causes (why did it happen?):
        Due to his opposition, the idea was abandoned
        Because of the rain, the game was called off
  2. Showing agents (who did it?):
        The window was broken by the children
        The café was filled with children having lunch
  3. Show support or opposition:
        She's with me on this
        They are against the plan
  4. Show topics:
        She talked about her family
        He wrote a book on Persia
  5. Show ingredients:
        The cake is made from eggs, milk, sugar and flour
        They built the wall with stones from the garden
  6. Show similarities and differences:
        That's very unlike him
        She looks like her mother
  7. Show concession:
        In spite of the rain, we took the dogs out
        I'm leaving despite the time

learn

Learn more

If you want to discover more now about prepositions, go to:
prepositions: the essentials
prepositions of place: the in-service guide
prepositions of time: the in-service guide
other meanings of prepositions: the in-service guide



test

Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of prepositions.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.

arrow


Section C: Conjunctions


join

Joining ideas

A working definition of a conjunction is:

a word used to connect clauses or words within clauses

Can you identify the conjunctions in these examples?  Use the definition given and your knowledge of word class.

  1. It was raining but we went for a walk anyway.
  2. There was no bread and no butter.
  3. I came early so I could help you get ready.
  4. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
  5. If you can let me know tomorrow, it would be a great help.
  6. I can give you a lift and I can take the dog, too.

Click eye when you have an answer.


five

5 things conjunctions can do

Can you classify the conjunctions in the examples above into the following five categories?  Click on the table when you have an answer.

conjunction 1


three

3 types of conjunctions

Now we know what conjunctions do in sentences, we need to look at their grammar.  In the examples above, we have three sorts of conjunction.
Now what you need to know is:

  1. Coordinating conjunctions
    join clauses or noun phrases of equal weight.  This means that, although we lose the connection, both parts can stand alone and make sense.
    So, for example:
        I called but she was not at home
    is a coordinated sentence and we can allow:
        I called.  She was not at home
  2. Subordinating conjunctions
    join main clauses to dependent clauses.  This means that only the main clause can stand alone and the subordinate clause does not form a sentence which makes the same sense.
    So, for example:
        I arrived after they had finished lunch
    is a subordinated sentence with the main clause:
        I arrived
    making sense alone but the subordinate clause:
        After they had finished lunch
    does not make a standalone sentence.
  3. Correlating conjunctions
    usually come in pairs and join two clauses or two noun phrases.  They can be coordinating or subordinating depending on the conjunction.
    So, for example:
        He had hardly sat down when the telephone rang
        She will either like it or hate it

    are both examples of correlation but the first (hardly ... when) is subordinating and the second (either ... or) is coordinating.

A simple (and not always wholly reliable) test to check if we have a case of subordination or coordination is to leave out the subject in the second clause.  If we can, as in:
    I came home and (I) cooked dinner
then the clauses are coordinated, but if we can't as in:
    *I went although was tired
then we have a case of subordination.

Can you identify these three types in the example sentences?  Here they are again with the conjunction in bold:

  1. It was raining but we went for a walk anyway.
  2. There was no bread and no butter.
  3. I came early so I could help you get ready.
  4. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
  5. If you can let me know tomorrow, it would be a great help.
  6. I can give you a lift and I can take the dog, too.

Again, click on the table when you have an answer.

conjunction 3

Some notes:

  1. Coordinating conjunctions can only be placed between the clauses or noun phrases they connect.
  2. Subordinating conjunctions on the other hand are a bit more mobile.  We can say, e.g.,
        She came because I asked her
    and
        Because I asked her, she came
    with approximately the same meaning (although the emphasis varies).  However, some subordinating conjunctions require a certain ordering because of the logic of what we are saying.  We can have, therefore,
        He was bored so he went to see his friends
    and we can have
        He went to see his friends so he was bored
    but the meaning is radically different.
  3. Some of the correlating conjunctions (the ones with a negative implication) sometimes require us to insert a question form so we say,
        Barely had I taken my seat when the play began
    This is called inversion, incidentally (and slightly misleadingly).

lists

Lists

Here's a list of some of the most common conjunctions in English, ordered by type, with examples.  Your task is to think of examples of your own so you are sure you understand.

Coordinating conjunctions Example Subordinating conjunctions Example Correlative conjunctions Example
but Not me but Mary because He came because I asked whether ... or I'll say it whether you want me to or not
so I came so I could help if If you go now, you catch the bus not only ... but (also)  He is not only attractive but he's also rich
for I can't read for the light is too dim although He drove although he was drunk as ... as He is as stupid as the day is long 
and I went and saw him than He works harder than she does both ... and Both my sister and her husband came 
or Either you stay or go before He arrived before I was ready no sooner ... than I was no sooner in the bath than the phone rang
yet He works hard yet he gets nowhere why That's why you dislike him either ... or She will either explain it or show you how to do it
nor I won't go nor will I let you when I'll come when I like rather ... than I would rather have a tooth out than watch that

The only complete list in the table above is column 1.  There are only 7 coordinating conjunctions in English by most reckonings.  The other lists can be extended very considerably.


learn

Learn more

This link takes you to the in-service guide to the area:
conjunction
and this one takes you to the simpler guide:
conjunction



test

Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of conjunctions.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.

arrow


Section D: Determiners


gate

The gatekeepers

Determiners are the language's gatekeepers – they control how noun phrases are seen.
For example, the difference between:
    Pass me a hammer
and
    Pass me that hammer
Is that in the first case the determiner (a) denotes a hammer but it doesn't matter which hammer.  We know what we want but not which we want but in the second case the determiner (that) points to a particular noun which is out of reach of the speaker.

Determiners are often quite simple words (although appearances can be deceptive) and they always come before the element they modify.
For example, we can understand a sentence such as:
    Sugar should be kept in sealed containers
in which we have two nouns: sugar and containers.  Both the nouns are unmodified by any determiner but the sense is still clear.  The first noun, sugar, is not modified at all and the second, containers is modified only by an adjective, sealed.
We can, however, add determiners which will make what we say more precise and get:
    The sugar should be kept in those sealed containers
in which we have used two determiners (in red) to control how we see the nouns.
We now know which sugar we are referring to and which sealed containers are in question.

In terms of meaning, determiners act to limit the noun they modify in some way, either by signalling what the speaker and hearer know about it (as articles do) or by saying where it is, whether it is singular or plural and how much or how many of an item we are considering.

6

Six sorts of determiners

In English, there are, essentially six sorts of determiners:

  1. Articles: a, an, the and Ø (the zero article)
    For example:
        She came on the bus
        I need a new car
        They lead an exciting life
        I have Ø flu
  2. Demonstratives: this, that, these, those
    For example:
        Take this money
        Open that window
        Let me show you these pictures
        Do you want those cups?
  3. Distributives: each, every, either, neither, both
    For example:
        Give every student a name tag
        Each child gets the same report
        Either car will be big enough
        Neither restaurant is open
        Both houses are too expensive
  4. Interrogatives: what, which, whose
    For example:
        Which car is his?
        What colours do you have?
        Whose room is that?
  5. Possessives: my, your, her, their etc.
    For example:
        That's my sister
        Did they get their certificates?
        The dog's hurt its leg
  6. Quantifiers: some, many, enough, four, all, both etc.
    For example:
        I have some time to spare
        Has he got enough money?
        They have three holidays a year

Here's a summary with a few more examples:
summary 1

strawberries

Count vs. mass nouns

We saw in Unit 3 of this course that common nouns can be divided into two classes: count nouns and mass nouns.
This distinction is critical when we come to looking at how determiners operate.
It is not possible to understand or teach very much to do with determiners unless this distinction is clear.
If you can't remember the distinction, review that part of Unit 3 before you continue (new tab).

Determiners work very differently depending on whether the noun they determine is a count noun or a mass noun.  And, if it is a count noun, whether it is singular or plural.

think Mini-task:
Can you say why the following six are wrong?
Can you correct them?
Click eye when you have your answers.
  1. Did they give you many help?
  2. Can you lend me a money?
  3. Have you got both information?
  4. There aren't much chairs here
  5. Pass those pencil
  6. Give me that books

choose

Choosing the right determiners

We are only dealing with a limited range of the most common determiners.  Much more detail is available in the in-service guides to the area.
As we saw above, the choice of determiner depends on the nature of the noun.  There are three to consider:

On the whole, determiners are mutually exclusive.  That means that we do not usually use two determiners to refer to the same noun so, for example:
    *The some men were here
    *That the house is very nice
    *My the money is here
    *Some the pencils are broken

are all disallowed in English.
Other languages may allow these kinds of structures.

Articles
salt
As we saw, there are three articles in English:
the: which is used when we specify or know what we refer to
a / an: when we refer to something identifiable but not to which specific instance of it
Ø The zero article which we use for mass nouns and plural count nouns when we are referring to them in general.
The main function of articles in English is to indicate what is known to the speaker and hearer or writer and reader about the noun in question.  In other words, they act to specify a noun or leave it unspecified.  There is a difference, therefore, between:
    Ø Pepper used to be a very expensive spice
    Ø Peppers are grown in India

    A pepper plant has died
in which the reference is to all pepper and pepper plants or to an unspecified plant.  We know what sort of thing is being referred to but not exactly which.
And, on the other hand:
    The pepper is in the right-hand cupboard
    The pepper plant has died

refer to particular specified instances of the noun.  We know what sort of thing this is and, in addition, which it is.
  1. The definite article can be used with mass nouns and with plural count nouns:
        Pass the salt
        We missed
    the train
        They stayed in
    the cottages by the sea
  2. The indefinite article can only be used with singular count nouns:
        Lend me a pen
        I planted an ash tree
  3. The zero article (which looks like no article) occurs with mass and plural count nouns:
        Ø Cars are expensive items
        Ø Dust gets everywhere
    The zero article cannot be used with singular count nouns so we do not allow:
        *Ø House is on the corner
Demonstratives
finger
Demonstratives perform a pointing function.  They indicate where something is in relation to the speaker / writer and they also indicate what kind of noun is being mentioned (singular, mass and plural).
The demonstratives these and this indicate that the item is near to the speaker and that and those indicate that it is further away.  English cannot, as some languages can, indicate whether it is far from the hearer as well.
  1. The demonstratives this and that can only be used with mass nouns or with singular count nouns:
        I really like this furniture
        That advice was unhelpful
        She broke that glass
        This house is too small
  2. The demonstratives these and those can only be used with plural count nouns:
        They lived in those apartments near the sea
        Can you repair these pieces of jewellery?
Distributives
truck
As the name implies, these determiners function to distribute nouns and they can be inclusive or exclusive.
  1. each
    is inclusive and treats the nouns as separate (and singular) so we have, e.g.:
        Give each child a pen
        Each of you must decide alone
    When this determiner is combined with of it determines only a plural count noun (or pronoun).
  2. every
    treats the nouns inclusively but as a group rather than as individuals (hence its combination with -one, -thing, -body) so we have, e.g.:
        Every part of the house was searched
        Tell every customer the same thing

    There are two issues with this word:
    1. it must refer to more than two items or people so we allow:
          I broke every glass in the house
      but not:
          *He held a glass in every hand
    2. it cannot occur with an of-expression so we do not allow:
          *Every of the children came
  3. both
    only refers to two entities and is inclusive so it occurs with a plural verb and pronoun forms as in, e.g.:
        Both parents came to the party with their children
  4. either
    also refers to two entities only but is inclusive so it means that only one of the alternatives is not allowed.  We can have therefore:
        Either hotel will suit us
    which means we can select a hotel but both the possibilities are included.
  5. neither
    is exclusive and signals that both alternatives are disallowed so, e.g.:
        Neither hotel suits us
    means that a third alternative must be found.
Possessives
house
The main function of these determiners is to indicate ownership but they can indicate other relationships including origin and description as in, e.g.:
    Her imprisonment was unjust
    His reaction startled me
    Your complaint has been rejected
    My government is unpopular
    His letter was a nice surprise
  1. Possessive determiners can be used with any noun type, mass, singular or plural:
        My house is the one with the blue door
        Her dogs are vicious
        Their assistance is welcome
        Your correspondence was ignored
        His response was immediate
        I think its batteries are dead
        That is different from our information
  2. In English, unlike many languages, possessive determiners do not co-occur with most other determiners such as articles demonstratives and interrogatives so we cannot have, for example:
        *Their the house is on the corner
        *Which your book did she borrow
        *That their house is beautiful
  3. They can co-occur with a very limited range of quantifiers so we allow, for example:
        Half my garden is untidy
        All our effort has been wasted
    but we do not allow
        *Many my friends are here
        *A lot their money was lost
  4. We saw above in the section on pronouns that one possessive determiner, his, can also act as a pronoun but the others change their form when they are used in that way, with my changing to mine, her to hers, your to yours, our to ours and their to theirs.  The possessive determiner its has no pronoun form at all.
Interrogatives
question
As the name suggests, these determiners occur in question forms and signal the subject of the question.
The determiner whose refers to possession (or other characteristics (see above)), which implies a limited choice and what implies a more open-ended selection.  So, for example:
    What train did he take?
suggests that the questioner has no idea at all and there is an almost unlimited range of possible responses but:
    Which train did he take
suggests that the questioner has a limited number of options in mind.
These are usually referred to as wh-words.  The three in question are which, what and whose and they can all be used with any noun type, mass, singular or plural:
    Which house did she buy?
    What beer do they sell here?
    Whose coats are those?
Quantifiers
scales
Quantifiers are the most complex class of determiners and, as their name implies, they signal quantity.  Sometimes, they are quite precise, such as two, both, neither etc., sometimes imprecise such as several, a few, a little etc. and sometimes very vague such as some, lots, much etc.
  1. many, a few, few and several only occur with plural count nouns:
        I don't have many friends
        She has a few minutes to spare
        There are few good reasons
        She has several good ideas
  2. much, a little, a bit of and little only occur with mass nouns:
        They don't have much time
        We have a little milk
        There is little help I can give
        Have a bit of cake
  3. all, enough, lots of, more, most, plenty of, some and any only occur with plural count nouns and mass nouns:
        They took all the furniture
        She lost all her cases
        We have enough work
        I don't have enough potatoes
        They have lots of experience
        We have lots of trees in the garden
        More cake?
        Bring some more chairs
        Most people like her
        He broke most tools he used
        They have plenty of help
        There are plenty of reasons to come
        Do you want some biscuits?
        Would you like some tea?
        Do you have any ideas?
        Is there any water in that bowl?

Quantifiers are the area of greatest concern to learners because English is quite specific about which quantifiers can be used with what sorts of nouns.
The following is quite brief and incomplete so if you want to know more, go to the in-service guide to this area where this table is extended.

Item Singular Plural Mass Notes
Plural count and mass nouns only
enough cross tick tick  
more cross tick tick  
most cross tick tick  
some cross tick tick  
all cross tick tick This is also a pre-determiner
a lot of / lots of cross tick tick This is informal
Singular count nouns only
either tick cross cross Only for a choice of two things
neither tick cross cross
each tick cross cross These are called distributives
every tick cross cross
one tick cross cross  
Only plural count nouns
both cross tick cross Only for two items
many cross tick cross Compare much
a few / few cross tick cross a few means enough, few means not enough
several cross tick cross Between 3 and 7
two (+) cross tick cross  
Only mass nouns
a little / little cross cross tick a little means enough, little means not enough
much cross cross tick Compare many
No restrictions
any tick tick tick Usually only in negative and question clauses
no tick tick tick Usually only in statements and questions

Here's a complicated summary of determiners (but it is not the whole picture):
summary 2

Try a test on these categories.

We saw above, when we looked at the some, every, any, no series of pronouns that the rule given to students, that we reserve any for questions and negatives, does not work.
Exactly the same considerations apply to the words some and any when they are used as determiners rather than pronouns.

Most determiners are uncomplicated in that they can be used in positive, negative and interrogative sentences.  Some are less obliging, however.  Compare, for example:

  1. She has some time to spare
  2. She doesn't have any time to spare

and it is clear that we use some in positive sentences and any in negative ones.  As far as it goes, the rule works.

However, we can also allow:

  1. Would you like some help?
  2. Can you give me some help?
  3. Do you have any aspirins?
  4. Do you want any more money?

The answer as it was above, is to look at the function of the sentence, not its form.
Sentences 3. and 4. are not really questions: Sentence 3. is an offer and Sentence 4. is a request.  In both cases, therefore, we can use some instead of any.
Sentences 5. and 6. are both real questions so we use any.


learn

Learn more

If you want to discover more now about determiners, go to:
determiners: the essentials
That guide has links to other, more technical and difficult guides to determiners of various kinds.



test

Take a test

You have already done a test on this word class but there are others in other guides if you want to follow them.  If you would like to try the test you did here again, click here.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.


A summary of function words

This diagram is taken from the in-service guide to word and phrase class.
You can learn more about the various subcategories of the items by following the links above.
function

arrow