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Concourse 2

Pre- and post-determiners


If you have followed the guide to determiners on this site, you will probably have noticed that determiners rarely co-occur.  We cannot, for example, have:

etc.  This restriction, incidentally, does not exist in a range of 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.  The approach taken here 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.
Later in the guide, we will get to a brief consideration of post-determiners.

In what follows, we will class the zero article as a determiner. In an expression such as:
    All luggage must be weighed
it appears that the word all is the only determiner present.  However, because luggage is a mass noun it can be analysed as being preceded by the zero article.  Then the structure is
    all + zero article [Ø] + mass noun
and all may be classed as a pre-determiner.

Missing from the following is any mention (apart from here) of what are called restrictive or exclusive adverbs.  They include, for example:
    That just the thing I need
    It's only a small spider
    She is solely the person in charge

    He's merely the assistant
    It appears to be simply a question of money
and are excluded here because they are considered in the guide to adverbs.  These adverbials refer to the whole verb or noun phrase and are not, strictly speaking, pre-determiners.  They are sometimes called limiters.

In many analyses, the list of pre-determiners is very limited and includes only:

  1. all, both, half
  2. multipliers: double, twice, eight times etc.
  3. fractions: a third, one quarter, a thousandth etc. (but, note, not half)

We will be slightly more adventurous than that but will note when what we include in this guide is not an analysis shared by everyone.

It is also worth making it clear now that only one pre-determiner per phrase is permissible.  In other words, these items are all mutually exclusive and cannot co-occur.

all both half

all, both, half

These pre-determiners function in slightly different ways.

With singular count nouns we can use half and all but not both
For example:
    half a loaf is better than none
    half this job will be done soon
    all my house has been decorated
    he waited all that day

but not:
    *both my job was done
With plural count nouns we can use all three pre-determiners but half cannot be used with the zero article
For example:
    half those oranges are rotten
    both the children came
    all the men went home and stayed there
    all lions are unpredictable
    both (the) dogs are friendly

but not with the zero article:
    *half people arrived
    *half trains are always late in my country

The predeterminer (or determiner) both refers to dual entities only.
With mass nouns we can use half or all but not both.  Additionally, only all can be used before the zero article
For example:
    half my money is already gone
    all the information is not needed
    all luggage will be returned at baggage reclaim
[zero article]
but not:
    *half chocolate is gone
    *both the sugar is gone


  1. We cannot use all, both or half before other quantifier determiners:
    1. *half every, *both neither, *all each, *half some, *both no, *all enough are all disallowed for obvious reasons of the meaning they carry.
    2. There is an informal use of half in which this rule can be broken:
          I don't have half enough time to do this
      but this only works with enough.
  2. These three pre-determiners have alternative of-constructions such as:
        all of the time
        both of the boys
        half of the house

    Although this is an optional structure when the noun is being determined, it must be used when we are pre-modifying a pronoun so we have:
        all of it was wasted
        both of them came
        half of it was used
        half of them were drunk

    but not
        *both them arrived
        *half it was rotten

        *all them were sold
    Moral: if in doubt, use the of structure.
  3. All three can act as pronouns (pro-forms) rather than determiners in their own right, slightly formally in some views:
        All arrived in time
        Both broke immediately
        Half was rotten
  4. Only all and both can follow the noun or pronoun they determine:
        the ladies all arrived late
        the children both cried

        They all complained
    but not:
        *the cake half was eaten
  5. The pre-determiner both is not so much plural as dual (a concept taken much further in some languages).  It shares this characteristic with the determiners neither and either.
  6. Both also functions adverbially as an additive and equaliser and is considered in the guide to adverbs, linked from the list below.  One example will do:
        John is both a good manager and an approachable boss

Here's a summary of these three:

all, both, half


multipliers: double, triple, quadruple, once, twice, three times, four times ...

These are less complicated and can occur:

With singular count nouns, plural count nouns and mass nouns
twice the price
double that amount
three times the weight
20 times his ability
double the chairs will be needed
quadruple the effort
Before the determiners a, per, every, each, multipliers can form distributives
once every term
three times a year
six times each month
20 times per century


  1. There is no parallel of-construction so we cannot have, e.g.:
        *double of the work
        *three times of his height
  2. None of these pre-determiners can follow the noun or pronoun so we can't have, e.g.:
        *the amount three times
        *the price quadruple of the other
  3. There are some arguably old fashioned or rare terms which it may be best to avoid except at the highest levels including, e.g., thrice, sextuple etc.


fractions: one-sixth, two-fifths, three-quarters etc.

These, too, are fairly straightforward but it is worth noting some things:

  1. All these expressions have alternative, parallel of-constructions and these are usually preferred.  Some of the examples without of in the following sound strange to most native speakers:
        one-third the money > one-third of the money
        sixth-sevenths the time > sixth-sevenths of the time

        three-quarters the effort > three-quarters of the effort
        five-eighths the distance > five-eighths of the distance

  2. The pre-determiner half is not included in this section because it has some characteristics which are not shared by fraction pre-determiners, especially when it comes to the use of the of-construction with count nouns:
    We can have:
        half of those vegetables are rotten
        half those vegetables are rotten
        one third of those vegetables are rotten

        half my work has been wasted
        one quarter of my work has been wasted

    but not
        *one third those vegetables are rotten
        *one quarter my work has been wasted
    etc. because only half can be used without the of-construction before demonstrative and possessive determiners.
  3. Some fractions in English are a real challenge to pronounce and spell.  Consider particularly sixths, eighths, sixtieths (respectively, /sɪksθs/, /eɪtθs/, /ˈsɪk.stɪəθs/) etc.
    Many languages simply do not allow consonant clusters such as /ksθs/ and speakers of those languages (Japanese and Arabic, for example, as well as some south-east Asian languages) will find it very hard to get them right.
    Speakers of Slavic languages will have less difficulty because those languages routinely contain quite forbidding consonant clusters.  The Slovak word štvrť, for example, (pronounced /ʃtvr̩tʲ/ and meaning quarter) contains no vowels at all.  Germanic languages, too, contain frequent consonant clusters.
    Do not be surprised, therefore, if fractions are pronounced with intervening vowels inserted between the consonants (e.g., /sɪəksəθəs/ instead of /sɪksθs/).
    In fact, native speakers will often reduce the clusters for ease when speaking rapidly and pronounce sixths as /sɪks/ (eliding the /θs/) so it slightly perverse to insist that learners shouldn't do this.


partitive phrases as pre-determiners

There is a separate guide to partitives and classifiers on this site, linked in the list of related guides at the end so here it is enough to note that many partitive phrases can pre-determine.  For example:

restrictive partitives
which can only be used with a single or very limited range of nouns.  For example:
    I'd like a rasher of that bacon
    She broke a pane of the glass
    He kept a lock of her hair
typical partitives
which can only be used with nouns sharing a particular characteristic (thinness, irregularity, cuboid etc.).  For example:
    He put in a slice of the lime
    He added a cube of the ice
    and a lump of the sugar
general partitives
which can be used with almost all mass nouns.  For example:
    I gave him a piece of my mind
    Can a have a bit of the cake?
    Give me a chunk of that bread


attitudinal pre-determiners: such, what, rather, quite

It is not the case that all grammarians would include these four words in the category of pre-determiner but, because they share structural characteristics with the other forms discussed above, it is legitimate for teaching purposes to include them.  Some analyses will call these intensifying pre-determiners because they serve to amplify or tone down the strength of the noun phrase which follows.  What they all do is communicate the speaker / writer's attitude.

such and rather
These words have other functions, of course, operating as adverbials in, e.g., such beautiful work should be exhibited, rather nasty weather etc.
Here we are concerned with their function as a pre-determiner when they serve to emphasise the speaker's attitude as in, e.g.:
    don't be such a baby (= you are being very like a baby)
    she is such a nice woman (= she is a very nice woman)
    this is such good food (= this is very good food [zero article])
    he is rather a stupid player (= more than usually stupid)
    they have rather a nice house (= more than usually nice)
The reason many analyses do not include these as a proper pre-determiners is that they can only pre-determine the indefinite or zero article and not the range of possessives and demonstratives etc. which have been exemplified for the real pre-determiners above.  We cannot have, therefore:
    *such my house
    *such those eggs
    *such the cat
    *rather her car
    *rather those apples
In American English rather is confined to its adverb function but in British English, it is used as a pre-determiner with much the same, although slightly less emphatic, meaning as such.
This word, too, clearly has a number of other uses in the language but as a pre-determiner it functions to express surprise, joy or disappointment in exclamations such as:
    What an exceptional result!
    What gorgeous weather! [zero article]
    What a very stupid thing to say!

Again, this word can only pre-determine the indefinite or zero articles.
This is an anomalous word because it can carry two distinct attitudinal messages:
1) Positive attitude when used with a non-gradable adjective in the noun phrase:
    It was a quite fantastic show
    It was a quite disgusting performance

2) Negative attitude when used in other environments:
    It was a quite interesting development (i.e., not very interesting)
Sentence stress plays a role here and the stress or lack of it on the pre-determiner can imply a down-toning or intensifying meaning.  De-stress the predeterminer and the adjective is emphasised; stress it and the downtoning effect is expressed.
It is also anomalous in that is can occur with the definite article as in, e.g.:
    That's quite the best tool for the job


The determiners rather and quite can act as post-determiners, following the determiner proper so we can have:
    It was a rather / quite interesting development
    It was rather / quite an interesting development
    That's rather / quite interesting information
(zero article)
(Arguably, in fact, putting the item after the indefinite or zero article simply results in its acting as an adverb pre-modifying the adjective and not a determiner at all.)
We cannot do this with what and such so we cannot have:
    *A what beautiful picture
    *A such beautiful picture




Pre-, Central and Post-determiners

So far, the discussion has focused on pre-determiners which modify determiners proper.
There is, however, an alternative way to analyse somewhat rare phrases which contain three determiners.  In this case, we can refer to them separately as pre-, central and post-determiners, like this:

pre-determiners central determiners post-determiners Examples
multipliers articles numerals
twice the first price
both my last letters
all those first books
half her many friends
all the six children
a third of those 15 groups
eight times that last number
all my first ideas
half those twenty people
twice my previous salary
both the next films
half the second class
both, all, half demonstratives sequencers
fractions possessives many

The issue to notice, explained in more detail in the guide to determiners is that pre-determining expressions with the preposition of function as partitives rather than determiners proper so we can have, e.g.:
    many of her friends
    both of the children
    a quarter of my salary
    all of those six letters

and general partitives conventionally take the first position in the sequence.
Restricted partitives, because they are determined by the nature of the noun, often take the place of post-determiners so we may encounter, e.g.:
    both my rashers of bacon
    half these loaves of bread

etc. and in these cases, the noun phrase rather than a single noun is determined.

The distinction between the quantifiers plus of and generalised partitives proper lies in the fact that the former cannot be pluralised so while we allow, e.g.:
    a bit of information
    some pieces of information
    a pile of books
    four piles of books

and so on, no parallel constructions can be used with the quantifiers except the fractional ones.  We allow, therefore:
    three quarters of these apples
    five sixths of the first group

but no pluralisation of words like many or several is permissible.  That is not the case in some languages.


teaching these forms

Other languages

Your learners' language(s) will almost certainly handle these sorts of concepts differently.  For example, it is perfectly OK in Greek to have the my friend or that the dog.  Romance languages, such as Italian and Spanish, but not French, allow the possessive determiner to co-occur with the article, too.
In some languages, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Swedish, for example, affixes (often suffixes) act as determiners.
Other languages, such as Finnish, also have possessive affixes doing a similar job.
Many of the expressions with the pronoun of acting as partitives of one kind or another will be realized through the use of genitive case structures in languages which depend on case marking to express relationships.

The way to bet is to presume from the outset that pre- and post-determiners will

  1. be used differently in your learners' language(s) and have different co-occurrence rules
  2. be virtually untranslatable
  3. be ordered differently in your learners' first language(s)
  4. cause problems if they are presented in a piecemeal fashion with no consideration of parallel forms
  5. cause problems if they are presented all together in an overwhelming mass of data


It is very important (not just here) to present these forms in a clear context for which graphics and realia are the obvious source because concepts do not coincide across languages.

For example, it is easy enough to come up with visuals such as:

each half both
How do you feel?
It's quite an interesting painting
What a beautiful painting
What an awful painting
It's such a beautiful painting
It's rather a boring painting
Anything else?
Discuss with two other students
Find two people who agree with you


At lower levels, especially, a little Total Physical Response teaching may be appropriate.  For example:
    John, give all the men a piece of blue paper.
    Mary, give all the students a piece of white paper.
    Arthur, give both a green and a white piece of paper to a student
    June, give both your pieces of paper to Fred



There is almost no point at all in tackling this area at all if the distinction between count and mass noun uses is unclear to your students.

Related guides
determiners for more on the forms of determiners in general
partitives a guide to partitives and classifiers
adverbs for more on restrictive or exclusive adverbs
adverbials for more on other forms of verb-phrase modification
adverbial intensifiers for more on this class of intensifying adverbials which serve to emphasise, amplify or tone down meanings