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Concourse 2

Determiners: the essentials


Determiners are the language's gatekeepers – they control how noun phrases are seen.
For example, the difference between:
    Pass me a hammer
    Pass me that hammer
is only discernible if you understand the function of the two determiners (a and that).

You may remember, from you school days, learning about demonstrative adjectives, possessive adjectives and definite and indefinite articles (along with much else) and wonder vaguely why you were never told about determiners as a word class or part of speech in English.
In fact, classifying words in the way you were taught is a perfectly legitimate way to proceed but, for teaching and learning purposes, it is simpler and often more precise to consider determiners as a class on their own because they share a number of characteristics.


What are determiners?

Determiners are noun modifiers and, in English, they are usually simple function words which come before the noun 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.

Determiners form a group of closed-class function words.  This means that:

  1. In theory we can list all the words which count as determiners in a language and we cannot, usually, make up new determiners in the way that we can invent new verbs, nouns and so on.
  2. Standing alone, determiners mean little or nothing but they function grammatically in the language to make our ideas clear.

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.


Six sorts of determiners

In English, there are, essentially (this is an essential guide) six sorts of determiners and we will look at each in turn to see how they behave.

  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, 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


Count vs. mass nouns

It is not possible to understand or teach very much to do with determiners unless this distinction is clear.  Linked at the end is the dedicated guide to the concepts of mass and count nouns so this is only a brief overview.

Whenever you use a noun in English, the language forces you to decide whether it is a count noun, such as dog, tree, garden, car or month or a mass noun such as sugar, water, furniture, information or anger.  The differences are:

  1. Mass nouns do not take plural forms and do not work with plural verbs so we do not allow:
        *I have many furnitures
        *Angers are bad emotions
    Mass nouns can stand alone without a determiner so we can have:
        Salt is bad for you, my doctor tells me
  2. Count nouns exist in both the plural and the singular so we can have, e.g.
        There are too many tables in here
        The answer was 15
        The questions were really hard
    Count nouns cannot stand alone without a determiner in the singular so we do not allow:
        *Book is nice

A moment's thought will reveal that 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 here 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


Choosing the right determiners

This is an essential guide so 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.

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 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
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?
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.
  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.
    When either is paired with or, the meaning is exclusive.
  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.
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 allows
        *Many my friends are here
        *A lot their money was lost
  4. 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.
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.
  1. 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?
  2. These 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
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 summary of determiners (but it is not the whole picture):
summary 2

Try a simple test on these categories.


Questions and negatives

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.  It also applies to words in the same some- and any-sets so we get, e.g.:
    I have something to show you
    There is somebody at the door
    I haven't got anything to say
    There isn't anybody free to help

etc. although in this case the words are pronouns, not determiners.

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 usual rule that is given to students is that we use any in questions and some only in positive sentences but we can see that this is not working here.
The answer 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.

We can also compare:

  1. She admitted stealing some food
  2. She denied stealing any money
  3. I often have some time on my hands at the weekend
  4. I rarely have any guests to dinner

and it appears that Sentences 8 and 10 are breaking the rule.  However, again, we need to look at the function of the sentences, not their form.  Both Sentences 8. and 10. are negative in meaning if not in form because of the verb deny and the adverb rarely.


A question of style

The determiners much, many and a lot (of) have similar issues.  Neither much nor many are naturally used in positive sentences so it is possible to find:
    I have much to do
    She has many friends
the usual choice will be something like:
    I have a lot to do
    She has a lot of friends
Questions, too, can be formed with much and many but they are again, slightly unnatural and formal:
    Do you have much to do?
    Does she have many friends?

and a lot (of) would probably be a more natural choice in informal language in both cases but in more formal speaking and writing, much and many are the determiners of choice.

Negative sentences, however, are a different matter and in these we get the quite natural:
    I don't have much to do
    She hasn't got many friends

although a lot (of) is still a possible alternative.

Related guides
word class map this link takes you to the index of guides to word classes on this site
count and mass for the guide to mass and count nouns
article use in English this is a short PDF document setting out the main rules and some exceptions
demonstratives: essential guide this covers the main uses of demonstrative determiners in English
determiners for a more advanced guide in the in-service section of the site with links to other types of determiners