Grammar Basics: Determiners

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The word classes covered so far in this series have been lexical words: nouns (1 and 2), lexical verbs, adjectives and adverbs. The remainder are function words, those that, very broadly, establish relationships between the lexical words. The main ones are determiners, auxiliary verbs, pronouns, adverbial particles, subordinators and coordinators.

First, the determiners. Like other function words, they do not lend themselves to the same morphological, syntactic and semantic classification as lexical words. To quote the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’:

. . . determiners are function words used to specify the kind of reference a noun has.

For David Crystal in the ‘Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’, a determiner is:

. . . an item that co-occurs with a noun to express such meanings as number or quantity.

They also express possession, where something is, and, in the case of the articles, whether something is definite or indefinite, that is to say, whether we know which item is being referred to. They are placed before nouns, and more than one may be used at a time, as in all those books.

Determiners are short, and relatively few in number, so few, in fact, that we can list almost all of them. They include:

  • the definite and indefinite articles, the, a,an
  • this, that and their plurals these, those
  • determiners that indicate possession or attribution: my, your, his, her, its, our, their
  • those that indicate quantity: every, each, all, many,  some, few, enough, several, both, any, no, half, twice, double
  • those that indicate number: one, two, three and so on

The definite and indefinite articles require particular attention by foreign learners whose native languages do not have them. The choice between them depends on a number of variables, including whether the noun is singular or plural, countable or non-countable, mentioned for the first time, and describes something known to both speaker (or writer) and listener (or reader).

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7 responses to “Grammar Basics: Determiners

  1. Articles also require attention by people whose languages do have them because usage varies considerably between languages.


  2. As this part of your Grammar series is about word classes, I assume you are assigning the possessives “my” etc to the word class ‘determiners’, and if so, I’m very happy that you’ve taken the simplest and most mainstream course. I’m also pleased that you haven’t complicated things by referring to this word class as ‘determinatives’ (as in CaGEL), which hardly any dictionaries define, and even when they do, they disagree.

    In EFL, we also refer to “my” etc as determiners, as do most British dictionaries, especially learner’s dictionaries and grammar books aimed at foreign learners. But the story seems a little more complicated.

    Back in the nineteenth century grammar, and earlier, however, “my” etc were categorised as (dependent) possessive pronouns, while “mine” etc were classed as independent possessive pronouns. Then some grammarians started classing “my” etc as possessive adjectives, an idea that prevailed until the idea of determiners was born (I think fairly recently). And you will still see “my” etc referred to as possessive adjectives on many grammar websites. Even ESL ones.

    But then to complicate things, Quirk, Greenbaum et al’s Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985) has a word class – determiners (articles, “this” etc) – which have a “determinative” function. But for them, “my” etc are not determiners, but are listed as possessive pronouns with a determinative function, while “mine” etc are listed as personal pronouns with an independent function.

    To further complicate matters, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey Pullum et al (2002), reverses the role of the words determiner and determinative, so that “determinative” is now the word class and “determiner” the function. But they also exclude “my” etc from this word class, and list them as possessive pronouns having a determiner function.

    It’s perhaps not surprising that the rest of us ignore these linguistic niceties when the two most influential reference grammars of recent years can’t even agree on nomenclature.

    I only know about this because a well-known language blogger was criticising an EFL grammar he had been given to review because it categorised possessives as determiners. And as this is absolutely standard in EFL I wondered why, and got into a long correspondence with him.

    Review with comments

    Incidentally, in Spanish, possessives also seem to be categorised with articles, demonstratives etc as ‘determinantes’.


    • I had considered mentioning the determiner / determinative distinction, but thought better of it. There may be a place for distinguishing between the form and the function, but this is not it.

      I, too, have come across Brett Reynolds, not least because of his reporting of Rodney Huddleston’s review of Carter and McCarthy’s ‘Cambridge grammar of English’, of which I have a copy. Huddleston, I imagine, must have been peeved at the similarity of the title to CGEL. Carter has since made something of a name for himself for his work on creativity in everyday language.


  3. The first cited definition is a little curious – “determiners are function words used to specify the kind of reference a noun has” – since noun phrases do just that: in “those three chestnut stallions”, “chestnut stallions” indeed specifies the kind of referent.

    Without rushing off to look anything up (I have the feeling a Chomskian would define determiners to be words that can be in head position of a determiner phrase, with DPs receiving some terribly convoluted, purely syntactic explanation), I’d define a determiner to say it is a part of speech that works with a noun phrase to specify the contextual aspects of a reference, where the noun phrase specifies the type of thing referred to.


    • A consequence of selective quotation, I suspect. That definition is from the introductory paragraph of the section on determiners. There follows an illustrative table which removes any doubt about what might be intended. As you may know, the LSGSWE is the stripped-down version of the magisterial ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’


  4. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Auxiliary Verbs | Caxton

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