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Concourse 2

Determiners

eye

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 only discernible if you understand the function of the two determiners (a and that).

This is an area of grammar and lexis where what you understand depends on whom you read.  Authorities differ in what a determiner actually is and in many cases in how to analyse and classify them.  The following is not intended to be an original contribution to this debate but to set out an analysis which can be used for teaching purposes.  There are references at the end to other sources you may like to consult.

In simpler times, this class of words was separately identified in terms such as demonstratives, possessive adjectives, articles and so on and that is still a valid but somewhat inexact way to analyse the area.  There is a separate guide to the article system on this site, linked at the end in the list of related guides, and the following will not cover the ground again.

If you have followed the essential guide to determiners, some of what follows may be familiar.  Treat it as revision.


dictionary

Definition

It's actually rather hard to define 'determiner' except by exemplification but, briefly:

One meaning of the verb determine in English is to limit the scope of or fix something and that, indeed, is what determiners do.
So, as a definition we will use:

A determiner is a word which specifies, identifies or quantifies a noun phrase.

By this definition, articles, quantifiers, demonstratives, interrogative words and possessives are all forms of determiners.  There, alas, the consensus view stops.


mass

Count and mass (or non-count) nouns

There is a clear and very important distinction in English between count nouns such as table which can appear in the plural (tables, chairs, dogs, cattle, feet, webs etc.) and mass nouns which cannot (information, luggage, anger, applause etc.).  If you want to know more go to the guide to countability, linked in the list at the end.

To see the significance of this concerning the allowed determiners, put any of the words in black into the gaps in the three sentences.

Words: no, enough, this, those, each

  1. __________ food in the cupboard was wasted.
  2. __________ tins of beans were thrown away
  3. __________ loaf of bread went mouldy.

Click here when you have an answer.


6

Six types of determiners

To remind you of what we are dealing with very briefly, here is a run-down of the six types of determiner that this guide will consider in one way of another.

  1. Quantifiers
    This is the largest group and also the group which evinces the most confusion in learners of English because they are unpredictable in behaviour.
  2. Articles
    There are only three of these in English and they have a guide to themselves so they will be considered here only in passing.
  3. Demonstratives
    There are usually only four to consider, this, that, these, those, but there is a bit more to it as we shall see.
  4. Distributives
    Some analyses do not recognise these as a separate class of determiner but they have characteristics in common which means that, for teaching purposes, they are often handled together.
  5. Interrogatives
    These are confined to three forms: which, what, whose, and are straightforward to understand and teach.
  6. Possessives
    These used to be called possessive adjectives but they aren't adjectives and do not work like adjectives so they are considered here.
test To start you off, try a test to make sure you can match the six types to examples of them in clauses.
If you can't you should go to the essential guide to determiners which explains things more simply and remind yourself.  Simply shut that guide to come back here.


variety

Determiners classified by grammatical function

According to Quirk et al, 1972, there are six classes of determiners defined by the way in which they are used with the three types of noun: singular, plural and mass or non-count.

We can visualise the situation by what appears in each cell of this table in which:
    yellow = singular countable (e.g. fact)
    blue = plural countable (e.g.: facts)
    red = mass or non-count nouns (e.g.: information)
Like this:

fact information
facts

The picture then looks like this:
Class Possible combinations Examples Notes
A
fact information
facts
the, possessives (my, your etc.), no, whose, which(ever), what(ever), some, any These words can all appear with all three types of noun.
Some
and any can only be used with the singular count nouns when they are stressed (e.g., some fact!, any port in a storm)
B
fact information
facts
Ø (zero article), some, any, enough These cannot occur with singular count nouns and some and any are unstressed.
C
fact information
facts
this, that These two demonstratives can only appear with singular and mass nouns.
D
fact information
facts
these, those These two demonstratives can only appear with plural count nouns.
E
fact information
facts
a(n), every, each, either, neither, one These can only appear with singular count nouns.
F
fact information
facts
much This word only appears with mass nouns and usually in negative and interrogative clauses.

Most authorities will agree that all the examples above are called determiners but some stop there and some will include other types of noun modifiers as determiners.

Thus, although we add nothing at all to some classes we can add as follows:

  1. No additions
  2. Quantifiers for plural count and mass nouns only: all, most, more, a lot of, lots of, plenty of
  3. No additions
  4. Quantifiers and numerals for plural count nouns only: few, a few, both, many, several, a good / great many, a large number of, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.
  5. No additions
  6. Quantifiers for mass nouns only: little, a little, less, least, a bit of, a great amount of, a good / great deal of

quantifier

Quantifiers

Most of the additions above are quantifiers of some sort.  These fall into three main categories: quantifiers proper, phrasal quantifiers and partitives.
Here's a list of quantifiers with their prototypical uses.  Do not try to teach them all at once.

Count nouns only Mass nouns only Unrestricted use
1, 2, 3, 4 etc. (n)either a bit of 0%, 10%, 60% of etc. certain none of
a couple of few a little ½, ¼ of etc. enough plenty of
a few fewer a little bit of a good deal of heaps of quantities of
a good / great many fewest least a great deal of loads of some
a number of many less the / a plethora of lots of the / a lack of
another neither little a quantity of masses of the / a majority of
any / the number of numbers of much all more the / a minority of
both several part of the / an amount of most the remainder of 
each various the whole any  no the rest of
† these quantifiers are unusual in only determining dual quantities.

notes

Some notes

choir

Altogether now

It is possible to present the data somewhat differently and conflate determiners and quantifiers, like this:

Item Singular count nouns Plural count nouns Mass nouns
Ø (zero article) cross tick tick
a bit of cross cross tick
a part of cross cross tick
a few cross tick cross
a good / great amount / deal of cross tick tick
a great many cross tick cross
a large / great / good number of cross tick cross
a little cross cross tick
a lot of cross tick tick
a(n) tick cross cross
all cross tick tick
any tick tick tick
both cross tick cross
each tick cross cross
either tick cross cross
enough cross tick tick
every tick cross cross
few cross tick cross
little cross cross tick
lots of cross tick tick
many cross tick cross
more cross tick tick
most cross tick tick
much cross cross tick
neither tick cross cross
no tick tick tick
one tick cross cross
plenty of cross tick tick
possessives (my, your etc.) tick tick tick
several cross tick cross
some cross tick tick
that tick cross tick
the tick tick tick
these cross tick cross
this tick cross tick
those cross tick cross
what(ever) tick tick tick
which(ever) tick tick tick
whose tick tick tick

A table like this, or an edited version, may be helpful for learners but it clouds the water a little because it treats all six types of determiners in the same table and also includes some phrasal quantifiers.

measure

Partitives and measures

As we saw in the guide to countability, there are times when we want to make a mass noun countable.  There are four ways to do this which avoid the informal expressions such as two teas, three sugars:

  1. General terms:
        a bit of
        an item of
        two bits of
        three pieces of
    etc. which can apply to a wide range of nouns and are rarely restricted.
    These are useful general words which can be used with almost any mass noun to make it countable.  They are, however, sometimes considered informal or imprecise.
  2. Typical terms which only apply to certain mass nouns, determined usually by physical appearance and nature of the item:
        a slice of cake / bread / cheese
        a bar of chocolate / soap / gold
        a cup of tea / coffee / soup
        a carton of cigarettes / milk / eggs

    The number of terms with which such words naturally collocate is a measure of their range and varieties of English vary in their use.
  3. Measures:
        pint of milk / beer / oil
        tablespoonful of tea / sugar / salt
        kilo of meat / potatoes / plastic
        pound of tomatoes / flesh / coffee
        handful of grapes / coins / earth
    etc.
    Which partitive is appropriate to use depends on the nature of the mass noun.
  4. Restricted partitive expressions which apply to only a few substances and sometimes are unique to one substance such as:
        a side of beef
        a rasher of bacon
        a blade of grass

    etc.

There is a separate guide to partitives and classifiers, linked from the list of related guides at the end.

jigsaw

Expressions with and without of

Expressions with of, such as:
    a few of
    many of
    some of
    less of
    two of

function differently from the determiners without of.
This is not merely a technical difference because it affects both meaning and the grammar of the language, particularly the ordering of determiners.


articles

Article determiners

Articles have their own guide on this site because their use is complex, especially for those learners whose first languages manage perfectly well without them or in which the system is very different (i.e., most of them).

Very briefly indeed, there are three choices for article use in English:

For much more detail see the guide, linked below, to the article system in English.


select

Demonstrative determiners

We saw above that the demonstrative determiners (which used to be called demonstrative adjectives) can function with both mass and count nouns but with differences.  They are derived from the same source as the definite article incidentally.

There are some other determiners, often not analysed as demonstratives which, nevertheless, work in a very similar way to identify or limit the noun phrase and add precision:

  1. the former and the latter
    These two words work in a very similar fashion so we have, e.g.:
        Peter and John came late but the latter guest at least apologised
        Mary had a thought and John presented another suggestion but the former idea was accepted

    This use is somewhat formal, even slightly stilted.  The advantage of using former and latter, however, is that neither is affected by considerations of location, number or mass vs. count-use nouns.
    These two words do, however, require a predetermining article, the, unlike the demonstrative determiners proper we analysed above.
  2. other
    also functions in a similar way and requires a definite article pre-determiner:
        This isn't working so pass me the other drill
  3. another
    is written as one word in English having long since (in the early 13th century) been combined with the indefinite article:
        She broke a vase so went to the cupboard for another container for the flowers
  4. ordinal numbers
    Words such as first, second, fifth etc. also require a pre-determining article but follow a similar pattern.  E.g.:
        We have a number of problems.  The first issue is that ..., the second complication is that ...
    etc.
  5. some adjectives
    Some identifying adjectives follow a similar pattern and serve to limit and define as in, e.g.:
        The difficult tasks we do at once, the impossible challenges take a bit longer

All these quasi demonstrative determiners can also be pronouns (in which case, the other is often paired with the one) but the restrictions on use carry over to the pronoun forms.
In particular, none can be uses cataphorically and all are confined to anaphoric referencing.

The word that causes some problems for many learners (and teachers) because it can perform four distinct grammatical functions:

  1. A determiner
    As in this guide
  2. A pronoun
    As in:
        Pass me that
  3. An adverb
    As in:
        They can't be that rich
  4. A conjunction
    As in:
        She told me that I was being unfair

The other demonstratives are not quite so confusing but they can, as we saw, all be pronouns as well as determiners.


truck

Distributives

A small class of determiners are described as distributive because they refer to individual items or people in a group.
They can, for semantic reasons, only be used with count nouns because that is their role.  It also means that the verb form is singular in most cases of their use.
They are:

each
refers to all the individuals in a group separately so the noun is always singular when the distributor appears alone.  For example:
    Each child was given a take-home present
    Each computer has been upgraded separately

The word can be used with or without the of-phrase so we allow:
    Each child went to a different class
    Each of the children went to a different class

but the of- formulation requires a plural count noun.
every
is similarly distributive but consider the group as a whole rather than focusing on the individuals in it.  This means that some uses realised with each are excluded from use with every.  For example, we allow:
    Every child was given a take-home present
    Every computer has been upgraded separately

but we do not allow:
    Every child went to a different class
to mean the same as the example above because it now suggests that all the children went together to a different class rather than going separately.
The of- formulation is also not allowed so we do not encounter:
    *Every of the children went home.
and the word is always followed by a singular count noun.
The other distinction from each is that every must refer to a group of three or more and cannot be used when the choice is dual.  So, for example, while:
    I held a glass in each hand
is acceptable, we do not allow:
    *I held a glass in every hand
both
This determiner is usually considered a pre-determiner (and is treated below in that way).  However, it functions for dual numbers only in the same way that every functions for all plurals insofar as it is inclusive.
By definition, it is only used with plural count nouns but mass nouns are often made countable when the determiner is used as in, for example:
    We drank both wines with dinner.
either
In English, when combined with or this is an exclusive conjunction but as a determiner, it is not exclusive so, for example:
    Either restaurant will do
means both are acceptable and
    You can take either book
means both books may be taken.
It only refers to dual number but the noun, when the word appears alone, is always singular.
This determiner cannot be pre-modified but with the of- formulation can act as a pre-determiner and is exclusive so we encounter:
    Either of the two men will be elected (but not both)
and in this case, a plural count noun must be used.
neither
excludes both options so:
    Neither restaurant will do
means they are both unacceptable.
This also occurs with the of- formulation:
    Neither of the sons inherited the house
And, like either, refers only to dual number with the of- formulation requiring a plural count noun.
distribute

Other distributive expressions

Multipliers such as three times, twice, once, four times etc. can predetermine noun phrases to form a variety of temporal rather than personal distributives.
For example:
    once every term
    three times a year
    six times each month
    20 times per century

A slightly odd distributive occurs with the word head as in
    Entrance is six dollars a / per head
where the phrase a / per head is not alterable so we cannot have
    *Entrance is six dollars every / each head.

You may discover other determiners described as distributives, including half, all and both.
While such items can appear in pseudo-distributive expressions such as:
    I gave half the children lunch
    She talked to both the children
    All the children got a toy

they are not true distributives.  On this site, they are analysed as pre-determiners, which is what they are.
There is a guide to such things, linked below.

handshake

Concord with distributives

Concord with distributives is sometimes slightly tricky, even for native speakers.  This is especially the case when the of- formulation is used.

Most will accept:
    Each house is painted a different colour
    Every house is painted a different colour

but not:
    Each house were painted a different colour
    Every house were painted a different colour

However, when we see or hear:
    Each of the houses were painted a different colour
the case is not so obvious and many will accept the plural concord because of the proximate plural noun.  In formal language, the singular is always preferred.
The situation does not arise with every because the of- formulation is not available and the verb is always seen in the singular.  However, pronoun use is a different matter and we will usually encounter:
     Every student in the department must hand in their essays on time

Formally, either and neither also require a singular verb form so:
    Either of the houses suits me
    Neither of the houses suits me
    Either book contains the data I need
    Neither book contains the data I need

are all acceptable and correct.
However, the plural form is often encountered in, e.g.:
    Either of the larger houses suit me
    Neither of the two houses I saw were what I wanted

both of which are considered substandard and avoided in all but the most informal language.


?

Interrogative determiners

This is a simple set of three determiners which are straightforward (mostly) to teach and learn.  As the name suggests, these determiners occur in question forms and signal the subject of the question.

  1. whose
    refers to possession (or other characteristics such as origin or description) as in, e.g.:
        Whose coat is that?
        Whose letter did she receive?
        Whose policy requires this?
  2. which
    implies a limited choice so in, e.g.:
        Which train did he take
    the suggestion is that the questioner has a limited number of options in mind.
  3. 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

These three determiners also occur in reported questions:
    They asked me which house she bought
    He wanted to know what beer they sold there
    Mary asked whose coats they were

The good news for learners is that none of the words can be predetermined and there are no restrictions concerning countability or number.

There are some issues, however:

  1. Having learnt that in English we use the relative pronoun who for people and reserve, usually, which for inanimate entities or lower animals, some learners are naturally tempted to carry the rule over to the determiner system and produce, e.g.:
        *Who police officer told you that?
  2. The distinction between a limited and more open-ended choice with which and who is not simple to understand for many learners whose first languages do not require this consideration so unnatural utterances such as:
        Which colour is his car?
    often result.
  3. Native speakers do not abide by the rules and, e.g.:
        What main course have you chosen?
    is perfectly acceptable although the choice is clearly limited and many speakers would select which in this case.
  4. When the choice is confined to very small numbers, the only determiner allowable is which as in:
        Which wine would you prefer?  Red or white?
    but native speakers will disagree about where the cut-off point falls in the selection of the determiner and the grey area is quite large.

?

Possessive determiners

These are another simple set to teach and learn although the defectiveness of the system in English puzzles some learners whose languages are more sophisticated and complete in this regard.
The defectiveness of the system is revealed by the fact that:

  1. English makes no distinction in terms of number or gender of the noun phrase so we get:
        my sister
        your sisters
        his brother
        their parents
        our dog

    and so on, all of which would demand a different determiner form in many languages.
  2. English only distinguishes the subject of the clause with three determiners which change for gender: his, her and its.
    All other possessive determiners are unchanged whatever the gender or number of the subject of the clause.
    That is not the case in many languages.
  3. Only the third-person possessive determiners alter to show the number of the clause subject so his, her and its change to their for the plural regardless, incidentally, whether the subject is animate or inanimate.
    Again, this is very defective in comparison to many other languages.

Where English does score over some languages is in terms of having an almost complete system in the pronoun forms which parallel the determiners.
Other languages may use the determiner and the pronoun interchangeably but English insists on my-mine, your-yours, his-his, her-hers, our-ours, their-theirs but, confusingly, lacks any pronoun at all for the determiner its.

Possessive determiners in English can co-occur with some pre-determiners so we allow:
    half my money
    all her time
    both her sisters

etc. and with quantifiers as in:
    many of her friends
    some of my money
    a few of her family

but quantifiers with possessive determiners always require the of- formulation.
However, unlike many languages, the possessive determiners in English cannot be pre-determined with an article, an interrogative a distributive or a demonstrative determiner so we do not allow:
    *the my car
    *which my pen?
    *each my houses
    *that my coat

etc.


pronoun

Pronouns

Almost all determiners can also function as pronouns (providing the reference is clear):

Determiners Pronouns
You can have either cup You can have either
You can have one glass You can have one
Can I have that puppy? Can I have that?
Have you got enough butter? Have you got enough?
There's plenty of bread There's plenty
You can have a bit of bread You can have a bit
These eggs have gone off These have gone off
etc.
But some small changes such as dropping the of are required because no pronoun permits the of-phrase use.

Briefly:

To read more about pronoun uses of these kinds of word, go to the guide to indefinite / impersonal pronouns linked in the list at the end.  There, you will find a list of the words which can act as determiners or pronouns, those (few) which are only pronouns and those (few) which are only determiners.
If you would like a list of determiners which also act as pronouns as a PDF document, click here .


Summaries

Here's a brief summary for learners:

summary 1

and here is a rather more complete (but still incomplete) and complicated diagram for you:
summary 2

There are links to lists of determiners, quantifiers and pronouns on the function word list page.


dominoe

Pre- and post-determiners

If you have followed so far, you will probably have noticed that determiners rarely co-occur.  We cannot, for example, have:

etc.  This restriction, incidentally, does not exist in many other languages.

However, there is a distinct class of determiners which function to modify other determiners.  What is included in this class is a matter of some disagreement.  There is a separate guide to pre- and post-determiners on this site linked in the list at the end and the approach taken there is to consider first which determiners most authorities will agree can function as pre-determiners and then to consider some more marginal cases which, at least for teaching purposes, can be analysed in the same way.
A short list of some pre- and post-determiners and examples is below.


order

Ordering determiners

Even between languages which have a determiner system akin to English, the order in which they occur often differs and this accounts for some error when the order from first languages is transferred into English.
One way of examining the issue is to distinguish not only between pre-determiners and determiners proper as we have done but also to consider central and post-determiners.
Here are some examples and a rule of thumb for the ordering of determiners.

pre-determiners central determiners post-determiners
multipliers articles numerals / quantifiers
both and all demonstratives sequencers
fractions possessives many

So we get, for example:
    double my salary
    both my next emails
    half the previous email
    all her many friends
    all those people
    the next three books

and so on.
When post-determiners co-occur, the numeral will always come directly before the noun phrase so we get, e.g.:
    the next three people
not
    *the three next people
Languages differ in this respect.


pronunciation

Pronouncing determiners

Determiners are function words and, as is the case with most function words, subject to a good deal of weakening and syllable reduction when they occur in connected speech.  Not producing the weakened forms often contributes substantially to a recognisably foreign accent.

The guide to connected speech has more on this issue in general but here are some obvious areas for classroom treatment:

All of these issues deserve some classroom attention because overly exact pronunciation is foreign to English-speakers ears.


problem

Problems for learners

As the name implies, determiners control how we think about nouns and noun phrases and how our language uses determiners may well influence how we think.  This, of course, depends on the answer to an as yet unanswered question about the connection, if any, between thought and language and the direction of causality.  For more, see the guide to language, thought and culture, linked below.

Determiners in English require speakers to consider a number of attributes of a noun which are not necessarily parallelled in other languages.  If one accepts the hypothesis that language determines some of the ways we think, this is a serious conceptual hurdle for some learners to overcome.

  1. Indeterminacy and specificity
    In English, before we can use a noun successfully, we have to take note of whether we are talking about a specific instance of the noun or the noun in an indefinite sense.  Many languages, some believe most, do not force speakers to make this kind of decision and speakers of those languages (which include most Slavic languages, Chinese languages, Japanese and Turkish as well as many others) may be ill equipped to think in those terms.
    For example, the distinction between:
        A man came to the door
    and
        The man came to the door
    is one which a native speaker of English will instantly grasp but which may be obscure to those whose first languages do not use both definite and indefinite articles.
    Equally, the distinction between:
        What do you want?
    and
        Which do you want?
    may also be obscure.
  2. Countability
    In English, speakers are constrained by issues of countability and mass concepts in selecting appropriate determiners and, again, this distinction is not one shared by many languages.  The distinction between, e.g.:
        Have we enough?
        There's a little

    and
        Have we enough?
        There's a few

    will often be opaque to learners whose first languages do not force them to make decisions about countability.
    By the same token, the difference between
        several times
    and
        some times
    may also be obscure and difficult to grasp.
  3. Here or there
    English distinguishes only between proximal and distal nouns so we can talk about, e.g.,
        this house
        these people
    and
        that house
        those people
    and know what we mean.
    Other languages do things differently and some have a distinction between near the speaker vs. far from the speaker and near the hearer vs. far from the hearer that English does not encode in the language.
    Other languages may also distinguish items far from both speakers or near to one but not the other.  This can cause some difficulty in choosing the correct determiner.
  4. Partitives
    English, as we saw above, uses specific partitives with certain types of noun, so we can have, e.g.:
        a pile of coins
    but not
        *a pile of water
    because of the nature of the noun.
    Again, other languages do things differently and some, such as the Chinese languages and Japanese, have very sophisticated and complex classifying systems which depend on a range of noun attributes.  In such languages, it is not possible even to count items unless one knows what sort of items one is counting.
    The concept of partitives will not be hard to grasp but the realisation of them is difficult for all learners.


Related guides
the word class map for links to guides to the other seven major word classes
articles for a guide focused only on this troublesome area
partitives and classifiers for more about how English selects appropriate partitives and rarely uses classifiers per se
quantifier list for a PDF list of quantifiers in English with notes on usage taken from the table in this guide
indefinite / impersonal pronouns many determiners also act as pronouns.  This guide explains more with a list of what's what.
pro-forms for a guide to how substitution works (and links to other pronoun guides)
countability for a guide to an area which affects the choice of determiner
concord for a guide which considers some of the issues which arise when determining the correct verb form
pre- and post-determiners for the guide to these which are only touched on here
language, thought and culture for a guide to how our first language(s) may affect how we think and vice versa
function word list a list of lists including determiners, pronouns and other function words


References:
Chalker, S, 1987, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman