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The Bridge: Determiners

Lots of bread and a little butter

In the real world, a determiner is someone who makes a decision.
In our world, however, it is a language item which helps us make a decision concerning a word's meaning.
A dictionary definition of determine includes
    to control or influence directly
(Cambridge International Dictionary of English)
and that's a good place to start because determiners in languages do just that: they control how we see a noun.  In that sense, all determiners are adjectival because they modify the noun.  They are, however, not adjectives, although they are adjectival.
Examples may help.

    I washed the car
    I washed a car
it is fairly easy to see that the determiners, the articles the and a respectively, control how we see the word car, either as a car whose ownership is known to the hearer / reader or as an unknown example of the general category of car.
    There's some bread in the bin
    There's a little bread in the bin
    There's plenty of bread in the bin
we have determiners controlling how we see the mass noun bread: an adequate amount, a marginally adequate amount or a large amount, respectively.

Determiners are a closed-class set of words.  That means that the number of them is fixed and it is vanishingly rare in any language to invent or introduce new ones.
In older analyses of this area, determiners were absent as a category and, instead, word classes such as articles, possessive adjectives and demonstrative adjectives were identified to cover various sorts of determiners.
That may well be how the area was treated on your initial training course because it is an easier, if less sustainable, approach.

For teaching purposes, it makes sense to define determiners a little more exactly because it is not very helpful to tell a learners that this or that word or phrase is a determiner and leave it at that.
Across languages, determiners are very variable in nature with some languages, such as Japanese, having a very complex set and others having very few.  That, too, is something to bear in mind.


Two major classes of determiners

  1. Determiners proper are words and phrases such as some, a, enough, my, two, these, several, a few and so on.  These sorts of determiners do not co-occur so we cannot have, for example:
        *several the people
        *enough some bread

    and so on.
  2. Pre-determiners can themselves be followed by determiners.  This class includes words and expressions such as all, triple, a number of, half, a slice of and so on.  These do co-occur with other determiners so it is quite normal to encounter:
        a slice of the cake
        all of those people
        half a loaf

    There is a separate guide to pre- and post-determiners, linked below, so they will not be further considered here.


Two sorts of determiners

Determiners themselves fall into two major categories of use in English which are not parallelled in many other languages.  The overriding decision one makes when selecting a determiner is twofold in English (but not in many languages):

  1. Am I talking about a definite item or an indefinite item?  Select:
        I saw some people on the bridge
        I saw a man in the street

    for indeterminacy or select:
        I saw those people on the bridge
        I saw the man in the street

    when the reference is to a specific item or items.
  2. Am I using a mass noun or a count noun?  Select:
        She has little furniture in the house
        They came without much delay

    for mass nouns or select:
        She collected many signatures
        They have a few questions
    for count nouns.
? To check what you know, identify whether the determiners in these examples refer to mass or count nouns (or both).
At the end, click on the eye to compare your answers.
  1. He gave me some bread and some biscuits
  2. He passed an examination
  3. She gave me the books and the paper
  4. Can you lend me your car?
  5. I need a little sugar and milk
  6. Give me a few minutes
  7. Pass me those matches
  8. ... and that oil
  9. Which wool and needles do you use?

Click here when you are ready: eye


A grey area

The troublesome items are few, fewer, fewest, little, less, least, a few, a little.
One rule for use remains absolute:

The items without the article (few, fewer, little, less) refer to concepts of inadequate numbers or amounts:
    we have few trees in the garden
    I have little to say
    we have fewer ideas now
    it has less importance
The items in the superlative (fewest, least) refer to the smallest number or amount, respectively, and are used with the definite article:
    the fewest points were scored by us
    that is the least important problem
The items with the article (a few, a little) suggest a satisfactory amount but not plenty:
    we have a few ideas
    can I have a little butter?
The items with the article cannot be used with comparative and superlative forms.
    *we have a fewer ideas
    *she has a fewest glasses
    *can I have a less butter?
    *it is a least important idea

The second rule for use once was simple:

Use the few set for plural count nouns and the less set for mass nouns so:
    a few people
    a little bread
    *a few bread
    *a little people
    fewer pounds
    less money
    *less pounds
    *fewer money
    the fewest people
    the least money
    *the fewest money
    *the least pounds

However, the rule, such as it is, is constantly flouted with the use of the less series taking over, especially in comparative and superlative forms, and one hears and reads:
    There are less people here today
    The least people are in the dining room

Nevertheless, the rule still applies in the base forms and
    the little people
    the few people
still mean different things, and we do not allow:
    *a little biscuits

There is a grey area, too, concerning numerals and both:
    less than six
    fewer than 6
are both heard and read.
The form of choice when the numbers refer to a quality rather than individual items is less so we have:
    less than 10 degrees
    less than five kilos
etc. although the application of the rule as it was would prefer:
    fewer than 10 degrees
    fewer than five kilos

If you tell learners that it doesn't matter any longer and the distinction between fewer and less is not longer valid, do not be surprised if they produce:
    *a little apples
because they may be persuaded that the new rule applies to the base forms, too, and it doesn't.
Of course, if learners stick to the mass vs. countable rule in all cases, they will always be right.


The rules in summary

For a consideration of most common determiners in English, see the in-service guide to the area (and others linked below).

The table of rules, which appears in the in-service guide to this area is like this, with the black areas showing disallowed combinations:

Class Possible combinations Examples Notes
fact information
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)
fact information
Ø (zero article), some, any, enough These cannot occur with the singular count nouns and some and any are unstressed.
fact information
this, that These two demonstratives can only appear with singular and mass nouns.
fact information
these, those These two demonstratives can only appear with plural count nouns.
fact information
a(n), every, each, either, neither These can only appear with singular count nouns.
fact information
much This word only appears with mass nouns.

An issue with determiners is that the subject is rarely the aim of any teaching but is often one in which errors are made by learners who imagine, failing evidence to the contrary, that the system will be much as it is in their first languages.
It rarely is, in fact, so teachers need to be alert to error and able immediately to explain how determiners are used in English.

? With that in mind, try a test to see if you can see what caused the errors.
You have 20 seconds for each item, so be quick!

This has been quite a short guide whose intention was to alert you to the most important aspects of determiners.  For more, see the guides linked below.


Guides in other areas
Initial plus essential guides In-service guides
mass and count determiners
demonstrative essentials pre- and post determiners
articles: essentials classifiers and partitives