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An important role in English grammar is played by determiners – words or phrases that precede a noun or noun phrase and serve to express its reference in the context. The most common of these are the definite and indefinite articles, the and a(n). Other determiners in English include demonstratives such as this and that, possessives such as my and the boy's, and quantifiers such as all, many and three.
In many contexts the presence of some determiner is required in order to form a complete noun phrase. However, in some cases complete noun phrases are formed without any determiner (sometimes referred to as "zero determiner" or "zero article"), as in the sentence Apples are fruit. Determiners can also be used in certain combinations, as in my many friends or all the chairs.
The terminology used in accounts of English grammar to refer to determiners is very varied. Sometimes the term is not used at all, and the words classed here as determiners (apart from the articles) are classed as adjectives (but see Determiners and adjectives below). In the present article a broad view is taken of what constitutes a determiner; it includes the articles and words and phrases that can substitute for them, as well as words and phrases serving as quantifiers. This means that determiners as construed here include words from the determiner class, such as the, this, my, many, etc., as well as nominal possessives (John's, the tall boy's) and other specifying or quantifying phrases such as more than three, almost all, and this size (as in this size shoes).
Note that many words or phrases that serve as determiners can also play the role of pronouns; for example, the word all is a determiner in the sentences All men are equal and I know all the rules, but a pronoun in All's well that ends well. In other cases there is a related but distinct pronoun form; for example the determiners my and no have corresponding pronouns mine and none.
Determiners that consist of phrases rather than single words might be called determiner phrases, although this should probably be avoided as the term is also used to refer to a noun phrase headed by a determiner (see Determiner phrase). An alternative term is phrasal determiners.
The following is a rough classification of determiners used in English, including both words and phrases:
- Definite determiners, which imply that the referent of the resulting noun phrase is defined specifically:
- The definite article the.
- The demonstratives this and that, with respective plural forms these and those.
- Possessives, including those corresponding to pronouns – my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose – and the Saxon genitives formed from other nouns, pronouns and noun phrases (one's, everybody's, Mary's, a boy's, the man we saw yesterday's). These can be made more emphatic with the addition of own or very own.
- Interrogatives which, what (these can be followed by -ever for emphasis).
- Relative determiners: which (quite formal and archaic, as in He acquired two dogs and three cats, which animals were then...); also whichever and whatever (which are of the type that form clauses with no antecedent: I'll take whatever money they've got).
- Indefinite determiners:
- The indefinite article a or an (the latter is used when followed by a vowel sound).
- The word some, pronounced [s(ə)m] (see Weak and strong forms in English), used as an equivalent of the indefinite article with plural and non-count nouns (a partitive).
- The strong form of some, pronounced [sʌm], as in Some people prefer dry wine; this can also be used with singular count nouns (There's some man at the door). For words such as certain and other see below.
- The word any, often used in negative and interrogative contexts in place of the article-equivalent some (and sometimes also with singular count nouns). It can also be used to express alternative (see below).
- Quantifiers, which quantify a noun:
- Basic words indicating a large or small quantity: much/many, little/few, and their comparative and superlative forms more, most, less/fewer, least/fewest. Where two forms are given, the first is used with non-count nouns and the second with count nouns (although in colloquial English less and least are frequently also used with count nouns). The basic forms can be modified with adverbs, especially very, too and so (and not can also be added). Note that unmodified much is quite rarely used in affirmative statements in colloquial English.
- Phrases expressing similar meanings to the above: a lot of, lots of, plenty of, a great deal of, tons of, etc. Many such phrases can alternatively be analyzed as nouns followed by a preposition, but their treatment as phrasal determiners is supported by the fact that the resulting noun phrase takes the number of the following noun, not the noun in the phrase (a lot of people would take a plural verb, even though lot is singular).
- Words and phrases expressing some unspecified or probably quite small amount: a few/a little (learners often confuse these with few/little), several, a couple of, a bit of, a number of etc.
- Cardinal numbers: zero (quite rare as determiner), one, two, etc. In some analyses these may not be treated as determiners.
- Other phrases expressing precise quantity: a pair of, five litres of, etc.
- Words and phrases expressing multiples or fractions: half, half of, double, twice, three times, twice as much, etc. Those like double and half (without of) are generally used in combination with definite determiners (see Combinations of determiners below).
- Words expressing maximum, sufficient or zero quantity: all, both, enough, sufficient, no.
- Note that many of these quantifiers can be modified by adverbs and adverbial phrases such as almost, over, more than, less than, when the meaning is appropriate.
- Words that enumerate over a group or class, or indicate alternatives:
- each, every (note that every can be modified by adverbs such as almost and practically, whereas each generally cannot. However, also note every other, which refers to each second member in a series.)
- any (as in any dream will do; see also under indefinite determiners above), either, neither
- Personal determiners:
- "As all we teachers know . . ."
- "Us girls must stick together. " (informal)
- These examples can be contrasted with a similar but different use of pronouns in an appositional construction, where the use of other pronouns is also permitted but the pronouns cannot be preceded by the (pre-) determiner "all".
- "I/we, the undersigned, . . . , "
- "We, the undersigned, . . . , "
- but not
- All we, the undersigned, . . ."
- Other cases:
- The words such and exclamative what (these are followed by an indefinite article when used with a singular noun, as in such a treat, what a disaster!)
- Noun phrases used as determiners, such as this colour, what size and how many (as in I like this colour furniture; What size shoes do you take?; How many candles are there?)
- Words such as same, other, certain, different, only, which serve a determining function, but are grammatically more likely to be classed simply as adjectives, in that they generally require another determiner to complete the phrase (although they still come before other adjectives). Note that the indefinite article in combination with other is written as the single word another.
In some contexts a complete noun phrase can exist without any determiner (or with "zero determiner"). The main types of such cases are:
- with plural or uncountable nouns used to refer to a concept or members of a class generally: cars are useful (but the cars when specific cars are being referred to); happiness is contagious (but the happiness when specific happiness is referred to, as in the happiness that laughter engenders...).
- with plural or uncountable nouns used to refer to some unspecified amount of something: there are cats in the kitchen; I noticed water on the floor (here it is also possible to use some cats, some water).
- with many proper names: Tom Smith, Birmingham, Italy, Jupiter.
- with singular common nouns in some common expressions: smiling from ear to ear, leaving town today.
For more information, see English articles.
Combinations of determiners
Determiners can be used in certain combinations. Common examples are listed below:
- A definite determiner can be followed by certain quantifiers (the many problems, these three things, my very few faults).
- The words all and both can be followed by a definite determiner (all the green apples, both the boys), which can also be followed by a quantifier as above (all the many outstanding issues).
- The word all can be followed by a cardinal number (all three things).
- The word some can be followed by a cardinal number (some eight packets, meaning "approximately eight").
- Words and phrases expressing fractions and multiples, such as half, double, twice, three times, etc. can be followed by a definite determiner: half a minute, double the risk, twice my age, three times my salary, three-quarters the diameter, etc.
- The words such and exclamative what can be followed by an indefinite article (as mentioned in the section above).
- The word many can be used with the indefinite article and a singular noun (many a night, many an awkward moment).
- The words each and every can be followed by a cardinal number or other expression of definite quantity (each two seats, every five grams of flour).
To specify a quantity within a definite class (as opposed to a definite class of a given quantity), it is often possible to use a quantifier in pronoun form (often identical to the determiner form), followed by of and a definite determiner. For example, three of the mice, few of my enemies, none of these pictures, much of John's information. An alternative construction with possessives is to place of and the pronoun form of the possessive after the noun: few enemies of mine, much information of John's.
As with other parts of speech, it is often possible to connect determiners of the same type with the conjunctions and and or: his and her children, two or three beans.
Determiners and adjectives
In traditional English grammar, determiners were not considered a separate part of speech – most of them would have been classed as adjectives. However there are certain differences between determiners and ordinary adjectives (although the boundary is not always entirely clear).
- Determiners take the place (or can take the place) of articles in noun phrases, whereas adjectives do not. For example, my house (not *the my house), but the big house.
- Adjectives can generally be used in combination without restriction, whereas only certain combinations of determiners are allowable (see section above). For example, a big green book is grammatical, but *every his book is not.
- Most adjectives can be used alone in predicative complement position, as in he is happy; determiners cannot (*he is the is not a grammatical sentence), except where the same words are used as pronouns (the problem is this).
- Most adjectives have comparative and superlative forms (happier, happiest; more beautiful, most beautiful), whereas determiners generally are not (except much/many, few, little).
- Determiners often have corresponding pronouns, while adjectives do not.
- Adjectives can modify singular or plural nouns, while determiners are sometimes restricted to one or the other (as with much and many).
When determiners and adjectives (or other modifiers) occur in the same noun phrase, the determiner generally comes first: the big book, not *big the book. However there are certain exceptions when the determiner is the indefinite article a(n): that article normally comes after an adjective modified with so, as, too or how. For example:
- It was so terrible a disease that... (alternatively: ...such a terrible disease that...)
- He was as rude a man as I have ever met.
- That was too good an opportunity to miss.
- I know how good a swimmer she is.
For more information about theoretical approaches to the status of determiners, see Noun phrase: Noun phrases with and without determiners.
- Zweig, Eytan (2005), "Nouns and Adjectives in Numeral NPs" (PDF), Proceedings of NELS 33
- Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 374. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0.
- Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 421–422. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0.