When communicating in English, you may notice that not all words fall neatly into the eight parts of speech (which are nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections).
One of these words that falls outside those eight main parts is the determiner, which usually comes before a noun or before any adjectives that describe that noun.
What Are Determiners in Grammar?
Determiners are words that are used to tell readers something about the noun it precedes. For example, the words in bold in the sentences below are determiners:
- The boy walked home from school.
- He ate an apple for breakfast.
- A bee flew into her room and buzzed around her.
We always put the determiner before the noun or noun phrase, regardless of whether the noun is the subject or the predicate of the sentence.
If the noun is modified by an adjective, the determiner also comes before that adjective, as in the examples below:
- The little boy walked home from school.
- He ate a green apple for breakfast.
- An angry bee flew into her room and buzzed around her.
If you’ve noticed, the determiners a and an depend on the word immediately following them: if the word following the determiner begins with a consonant, we use a. If it begins with a vowel, we use an.
Types of Determiners
The four different types of determiners in the English language are: articles, quantifiers, demonstratives, and possessives.
An article specifies or determines whether the noun being used is a general or specific version of the noun.
The three singular articles in the English language are: a, an, and the. A and an are called indefinite articles. You use them when you are referring to a general version of the noun, as shown in the examples below:
- A bunny is a good pet for children.
- Keeping a garden is a good way to relax.
- A smoothie is an easy-to-make breakfast.
In the first sentence, we are talking about any bunny being a good pet, for children in general. In the second sentence, we are talking about keeping any garden being one of many good ways to relax. In the third sentence, we are talking about any smoothie being easy to make for breakfast.
The definite article the, on the other hand, specifies that the noun in use refers to a specific item. For example:
- The bunny is a good pet for the children.
- Keeping the garden is a good way for Karla to relax.
- The super-green smoothie is an easy-to-make breakfast.
In the first sentence above, we are talking about a specific bunny, which is the bunny, who is a good pet for a specific group of children.
In the second sentence, we are referring to a specific garden, and keeping it is a good way for a specific person to relax.
The third sentence talks about a specific smoothie, in this case, modified by the adjective name “super-green.”
As determiners, quantifiers indicate how many or how much of the noun is being referred to. Some of the most common words in this category are all, many, and few. See these examples below:
- The shrewd child traded all his books for toys.
- All Canada geese migrate to the south with their mothers.
- Most children whose parents read to them while they are young grow up loving to read.
The determiner all shows that the speaker is referring to everything of a kind. It can be used along with other determiners. In the first sentence above, it refers to every single one of the toys that the child owns, and it is used alongside the possessive determiner his.
In the second sentence, the determiner all qualifies a specific type of geese, the Canada geese.
In the third sentence, the determiner is most, and it tells us that we are referring to a majority of the children in question.
Demonstrative determiners are actually demonstrative pronouns that function as determiners. This includes the following words: this, that, these, and those.
These words are used when the speaker can actually point to the items in question:
- This: refers to something nearby that is in singular form.
- That: refers to something far away that is in singular form.
- These: refers to more than one thing (plural) that is nearby.
- Those: refers to more than one thing (plural) that is far away.
This makes demonstrative determiners even more specific than the definite article. See the examples below:
- Did you make this scarf? It’s pretty!
- My son wanted to see that movie.
- These pies are amazing! Who made them?
In the examples above, the first sentence refers to a scarf that is near the speaker, possibly in her hands or somewhere in front of her. The second sentence refers to a movie far off from the speaker. The third sentence is talking about pies that are also right in front of the speaker.
Possessive determiners are actually possessive pronouns. These words show who owns something in the sentence. For example:
- My dog ran after the cat that traipsed into the yard.
- The farmer waved his straw hat at the passing train.
- The little orphan girl cried into her pillow, not wanting anyone to hear her.
The possessive determiners always come before the noun and any adjectives that modify the noun, as we can see in the second sentence above.
Ordinal numbers can also function as determiners, as they tell us which of the items the sentence is referring to. For example:
- The first boy who answers the question correctly wins a prize.
- Would you please call over the third girl in the line? I need to tell her something.
- The last person who leaves the office should turn off all the lights and lock the door.
As its name implies, distributive determiners describe how something is divided, shared, or distributed. These include the words every, each, either, and neither. For example:
- Every child is special.
- Neither of the twins cares much for ice cream.
- Each of the five boys had his own plans for winning the prize.
The words each and every refer to only one of the noun. Note that they are never used with proper nouns.
Each refers to separate entities of the group, while every refers to all the members of the group:
- The six ducklings came, each one flapping its wings.
- Every girl in the class wanted to be chosen for the lead role in the play.
Either refers to one of two of the entities mentioned, while neither excludes both the two entities:
- I don’t really have a preference; we can watch either of the two movies.
- Neither of the two movies suits me; let’s do something else instead.
How to Use Determiners
Here are some basic rules for using determiners:
- The determiner always appears before the noun or any adjective that modifies that noun.
- Singular nouns always require a determiner before it.
- To refer to a singular noun in the general sense, use the indefinite pronoun a or an. Use a if the word that follows starts with a consonant, and an if the word following starts with a vowel.
- To refer to a plural noun in the general sense, you can skip the determiner.
- To refer to a specific singular noun, use any of the following: the definite article the, a demonstrative pronoun, a quantifier, or a possessive pronoun.
The more you see these words used, the easier it will be to use them properly, so it’s always a great idea to read as much as you can.
By adding some classic stories to your reading list and exposing yourself to how the English language works, you’ll become a much better communicator.
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