logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2



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 and articles 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.



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

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


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, much

  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.

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. Singular count nouns only: one
  6. Quantifiers for mass nouns only: little, a little, less, least, a bit of, a great amount of, a good / great deal of



Most of the additions above are quantifiers of some sort.  These fall into three main categories: quantifiers proper, phrasal quantifiers and partitives.


Phrasal quantifiers

There are three sorts:

  1. Occurring only with mass nouns: a good / great deal of, a large / small/ amount of + information
  2. Occurring only with plural count nouns: a good / great / large / small number of + facts
  3. Occurring with both mass nouns and plural count nouns: plenty of, a lot of, lots of + facts / information

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 three ways to do this which avoid the rare and informal expressions such as two teas, three sugars:

  1. General terms: a bit of, an item of, two bits of, three pieces of etc.
    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: a slice of cake, a bar of chocolate / soap, a cup of tea / coffee / soup etc., a carton of cigarettes etc.
    The number of terms with which such words naturally collocate is a measure of their range.
  3. Measures: pint, tablespoonful, kilo, pound, handful etc.  Which is appropriate to use depends on the nature of the mass noun.

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



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

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
But some small changes such as dropping the of are required.

Articles and the possessives adjectives cannot be pronouns.  They can only function as determiners.  This explains why possessive adjectives are often referred to as possessive determiners.  In some analyses, the pronouns one and ones are considered the pronoun equivalent of indefinite articles as in, for example:
    Do you want a biscuit?
    Yes, I'll have one

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 that list as a PDF document, click here.

A brief summary


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



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 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.  There is a separate guide to pre-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.

Related guides
articles for a guide focused only on this troublesome area
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
pre-determiners see above
function word list a list of lists including determiners, pronouns and other function words

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