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Determiner, also called determinative (abbreviated DET), is a term used in some models of grammatical description to describe a word or affix belonging to a class of noun modifiers. A determiner combines with a noun to express its reference.[1][2] Examples in English include articles (the and a), demonstratives (this, that), possessives (my, their), and quantifiers (many, both). Not all languages have determiners, and not all systems of grammatical description recognize them as a distinct category.


The term "determiner" was coined by Leonard Bloomfield. Bloomfield observed that in English nouns normally require a qualifying word such as an article or adjective. He proposed that such words belong to a distinct class which he called "determiners".[3]

If a language is said to have determiners, any articles are normally included in the class. Other types of words often regarded as belonging to the determiner class include demonstratives and possessives. Some linguists extend the term to include other words in the noun phrase such as adjectives and pronouns, or even modifiers in other parts of the sentence.[2]

The composition of the class of determiners may depend on the particular language's rules of syntax; for example, in English the possessives my, your etc. are used without articles and so can be regarded as determiners, whereas their Italian equivalents mio etc. are used together with articles and so may be better classed as adjectives.[4] Not all languages can be said to have a lexically distinct class of determiners.

In some languages, the role of certain determiners can be played by affixes (prefixes or suffixes) attached to a noun or by other types of inflection. For example, definite articles are represented by suffixes in Romanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Swedish. (For example, in Swedish, bok ("book"), when definite, becomes boken ("the book"), while the Romanian caiet ("notebook") similarly becomes caietul ("the notebook").) Some languages, such as Finnish, have possessive affixes, which play the role of possessive determiners like my and his.

Syntactic order[edit]

Determiners may be predeterminers, central determiners or postdeterminers, based on the order in which they can occur.[citation needed] For example, "all my many very young children" uses one of each. "My all many very young children" is not grammatically correct because a central determiner cannot precede a predeterminer.


Articles are words used (as a standalone word or a prefix or suffix) to specify the grammatical definiteness of a noun, and, in some languages, volume or numerical scope. Articles often include definite articles (such as English the) and indefinite articles (such as English a and an).


Demonstratives are words, such as this and that, used to indicate which entities are being referred to and to distinguish those entities from others. They are usually deictic, which means their meaning changes with context. They can indicate how close the things being referenced are to the speaker, listener, or other group of people. In the English language, demonstratives express proximity of things with respect to the speaker.

Possessive determiner[edit]

Possessive determiners such as my and their modify a noun by attributing possession (or other sense of belonging) to someone or something. They are also known as possessive adjectives.


Quantifiers indicate quantity. Some examples of quantifiers include: all, some, many, little, few, and no. Quantifiers only indicate a general quantity of objects, not a precise number such as twelve, dozen, first, single, or once (which are considered numerals).[5]

Determiners and pronouns[edit]

Determiners are distinguished from pronouns by the presence of nouns.[6]

  • Each went his own way. (Each is used as a pronoun, without an accompanying noun.)
  • Each man went his own way. (Each is used as a determiner, accompanying the noun man.)

Plural personal pronouns can act as determiners in certain constructions.[7]

  • We linguists aren’t stupid.
  • I'll give you boys three hours to finish the job!
  • Nobody listens to us students.

Some theoreticians unify determiners and pronouns into a single class. For further information, see Pronoun § Linguistics.

Distributive determiners[edit]

Distributive determiners, also called distributive adjectives, consider members of a group separately, rather than collectively. Words such as each and every are examples of distributive determiners.

Interrogative determiners[edit]

Interrogative determiners such as which, what, and how are used to ask a question:

  • Which team won?
  • What day is it?
  • How many do you want?

As a functional head[edit]

Some theoretical approaches regard determiners as heads of their own phrases, which are described as determiner phrases. In such approaches, noun phrases containing only a noun without a determiner present are called "bare noun phrases", and are considered to be dominated by determiner phrases with null heads.[8] For more detail on theoretical approaches to the status of determiners, see Noun phrase § Noun phrases with and without determiners.

Some theoreticians analyze pronouns as determiners or determiner phrases. See Pronoun: Theoretical considerations. This is consistent with the determiner phrase viewpoint, whereby a determiner, rather than the noun that follows it, is taken to be the head of the phrase.

Objections to "determiner" as a universal category[edit]

Many functionalist linguists dispute that the determiner is a universally valid linguistic category. They argue that the concept ´determiner´ is Anglocentric, since it was developed on the basis of the grammar of English and similar languages of north-western Europe. The linguist Thomas Payne comments that the term determiner "is not very viable as a universal natural class", because few languages consistently place all the categories described as determiners in the same place in the noun phrase.[9]

The category ´determiner´ was developed because in languages like English traditional categories like articles, demonstratives and possessives do not occur together. But in many languages these categories freely co-occur, as Matthew Dryer observes.[10] For instance, Engenni, a Niger-Congo language of Nigeria, allows a possessive word, a demonstrative and an article all to occur as noun modifiers in the same noun phrase:[10]







ani wò âka nà

wife 2SG.POSS that the

´that wife of yours´

There are also languages in which demonstratives and articles do not normally occur together, but must be placed on opposite sides of the noun.[10] For instance, in Urak Lawoi, a language of Thailand, the demonstrative follows the noun:







rumah besal itu

house big that

´that big house´

However, the definite article precedes the noun:





koq nanaq

the children

´the children´

As Dryer observes, there is little justification for a category of determiner in such languages.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lyons 1977, p. 454-455.
  2. ^ a b Crystal 1985, p. 90.
  3. ^ Bloomfield 1933.
  4. ^ Progovac 1998, p. 166.
  5. ^ Matthews 2014.
  6. ^ Runner, Jeffrey T.; Kaiser, Elsi (2005). "Binding in Picture Noun Phrases: Implications for Binding Theory" (PDF). In Müller, Stefan (ed.). Proceedings of the HPSG05 Conference. Lisbon: CSLI Publications. CiteSeerX
  7. ^ Tallerman 2011, p. 54.
  8. ^ Nemoto 2005, p. 383.
  9. ^ Payne 1997, p. 102.
  10. ^ a b c d Dryer, Matthew S.. 2007. "Noun phrase structure". In Timothy Shopen (ed.), Language typology and syntactic description, second edition. Volume II: 151-205. New York: Cambridge University Press. Pages 161-162.


  • Bloomfield, Leonard (1933). Language. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Crystal, David (1985). A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics, second edition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0631140816.
  • Dryer, Matthew S. (2007). "Noun phase structure". In Timothy Shopen (ed.), Language typology and syntactic description, second edition. Volume II: 151-205. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521588560.
  • Lyons, John (1977). Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Matthews, P.H. (2014). The concise Oxford dictionary of linguistics, third edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199675128.
  • Nemoto, Naoko (2005). "On mass denotations of bare nouns in Japanese and Korean". Linguistics. 43: 383–413.
  • Payne, Thomas E. (1997). Describing morphosyntax: A guide for field linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521588057.
  • Progovac, Ljiljana (1998). "Determiner Phrase in a Language without Determiners". Journal of Linguistics. 34: 165–179. doi:10.1017/S0022226797006865.
  • Tallerman, Maggie (2011). Understanding Syntax. Understanding Language (3rd ed.). London: Hodder Education. ISBN 9781444112054.
  • Van de Velde, Freek (2010). "The emergence of the determiner in the Dutch NP". Linguistics. 48: 263–299. doi:10.1515/ling.2010.009.

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