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Determiners: Small But Determined

The simplest determiner definition is that it's a word that introduces a noun. The list of determiners includes the shortest word in the English language, the article a, and several other short-in-stature words such as an and the. Don't let their lack of letters fool you into thinking these words aren't important! In fact, the is the most commonly used English word, with a following closely behind at number six.

When trying to understand how nouns interact with determiners, grammar can become a tricky subject. We'll look at their function in more detail, but you might also find this to be a useful reference. If you still find that you're struggling to answer the question "what is a determiner?" you can use the grammar checker at EasyBib Plus to give you extra confidence that your work is grammatically correct before handing it in for grading. We have other helpful pages too, such as verb, pronoun, and conjunction. You can also use the tools at EasyBib.com to correctly cite your sources, with a wide variety of citation styles to choose from, including APA and MLA format.

What Do Determiners Determine?

The question "what is a determiner in grammar?" can be answered by looking at its two main grammatical functions.

Reference

The first function of this word type is to help show what a noun is referring to. Articles, possessive determiners and demonstratives fall into this category.

For example:

Where did you park the car?

The article the indicates that the noun refers to something that both the person speaking and the person they are speaking to are familiar with.

Where did you park your car?

The possessive your indicates that the car belongs to the person being spoken to.

Where did you park her car?

The possessive her indicates that the car belongs to someone female; someone that both the person speaking and the person they are speaking to are familiar with.

Where did you park Sarah's car?

The possessive Sarah's indicates that the car belongs to Sarah.

Are you driving this car or that car?

The demonstrative this usually indicates a closer item, while that indicates one further away.

Quantity

The second function of this word type is to indicate how much or how many of the noun there is. Quantifiers, numbers and distributives fall into this category.

For example:

  • Number -- Ten students handed in their paper before the deadline.
  • Quantifier -- Some students handed in their paper before the deadline.
  • Quantifier -- All students handed in their paper before the deadline.
  • Quantifier -- Enough students (to satisfy the tutor) handed in their paper before the deadline.
  • Distributive -- Every student handed in their paper before the deadline.
  • Distributive -- Half the students handed in their paper before the deadline.

Understanding its key functions should help you to understand the determiners definition.

Specific Versus General

The determiners list includes both specific and general examples. The names are pretty self-explanatory, and can help you to understand the categories of determiner grammar-wise.

For example:

  • Can you pass me the bag? -- Suggests one specific bag.
  • Can you pass me that bag? -- Suggests the specific bag that is being indicated.
  • Can you pass me a bag? -- Suggest that it doesn't matter which bag.
  • Can you pass me any bag? – Again, suggests that it doesn't matter which bag.

Let's look at more examples, and the types of determiner that go in each category:

Being Specific

Definite Article -- The is known as the definite article. It indicates a specific thing.

I'd like to see the show.

Possessives -- my, your, his, her, its, our, their, Sarah's

Possessives indicate that the noun belongs to someone or something.

  • Can I share your cake?
  • Todd got into his car.
  • The team took their places.

They don't necessarily refer to a person. For example:

  • The river broke its banks.

Demonstratives -- this, that, these, those

  • This (singular/non-count) and these (plural) are used to indicate something close-by.
  • That (singular/non-count) and those (plural) are used to indicate something further away.

Interrogatives -- what, which, whose

Interrogatives are used to ask a question.

  • What day shall we go?
  • Which college do you go to?
  • Whose dog is that?

(Whose is a rebel word that straddles two categories—it’s known as a possessive interrogative, i.e., it asks a question regarding possession.)

Things in General

Indefinite Articles -- Indefinite articles include a and an. They indicate something non-specific.

  • I'd like to see a show. -- Doesn't specify which show in particular.

An is used instead of a when the noun it refers to begins with a vowel sound. Note that it doesn't always follow that it begins with an actual vowel.

For example:

  • I have to write an academic paper.
  • Can I borrow an umbrella?
  • Oxford is a university in England. -- University begins with a Y (consonant) sound.
  • It was an honor to meet him. -- Honor has a silent H and begins with an O (vowel) sound.
  • I had a history test today. -- History begins with a H (consonant) sound.

Quantifiers -- (a) few, (a) little, much, no, none of, many, a lot of, most, some, several, any, enough

Quantifiers usually indicate a non-specific amount and are often used to answer the questions "how many?" or "how much?" These can be split further into sub-categories depending on whether you use them with countable or uncountable nouns.

For example:

Uncountable (non-count) nouns, e.g., sugar, water, money, kindness -- A little, much

  • Can you pour me a little water?
  • Do you have much money?

Countable nouns, e.g. friends, people, books, ideas -- A few, several, many

  • I have a few books.
  • I have several books.
  • I have many books.

Both non-count and count nouns -- A lot of, most, some, any, enough

  • I have a lot of money.
  • I have a lot of books.
  • I have the most money.
  • I have the most books.
  • Do you have any money?
  • Do you have any books?
  • I have enough money.
  • I have enough books.

Distributives -- Half, all, both, either, neither, each, every

Distributives refer to individual things or people that are part of a bigger group. They show how things are distributed, shared or divided. Both, either and neither refer to pairs.

  • I would like both desserts.
  • I would like either dessert.
  • I would like neither dessert.

Note the use of a plural or singular noun, depending on the determiner.

  • Each, every refer to individuals within a group.

    • Each member of the team won a medal.
    • Every member of the team won a medal.
  • Half refers to how a collective is divided.

    • Half the audience enjoyed the film.
  • All refers to every member of a collective or something as a whole.

    • It took all day to finish my paper.
    • All children like ice-cream.

Numbers -- one, twenty, zero

These refer to a specific amount or number.

  • There's zero chance of rain today.
  • I have one deadline this week.
  • John is twenty minutes away.
  • I have three jackets to choose from.

Difference -- other, another

These refer to something different or additional.

  • Do you have other books?
  • Can you choose another adjective you can use in the sentence??

Going Abstract

Don't make the mistake of thinking that this word type can only refer to physical things. They can also be used to refer to an abstract thing, metaphor or idea. For example:

  • I did it my way.
  • Which idea was yours?
  • Her research was overwhelming.
  • Its power was unbelievable.
  • They set off on their adventure.
  • You can't argue with the law.
  • Sarah's luck had run out.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining.

Warm Up Words

Pre-determiners are positioned before this word type, creating teams of two or more words before a noun. They usually pair with indefinite articles and can be used for emphasis or to express that something is remarkable or impressive.

Examples include such, what and quite.

  • I had such a good time.
  • What an adventure!
  • It was quite a party.

Occasionally you will see these words paired with the, however it's quite a dated language combination. For example:

  • She was quite the hero.
  • Todd was quite the footballer.

Going Solo

Some nouns don't need a determiner to refer to them and can stand alone quite happily. These are sometimes known as zero article nouns. Zero articles can apply to:

Proper nouns

  • Example -- I go to camp in August.
  • Instead of -- I go to camp in the August.

Non-specific non-count nouns

  • Example -- I try to drink water. (In general)
  • Instead of -- I try to drink the water.

Non-specific plural count nouns

  • Example -- She collects books. (In general)
  • Instead of -- Not she collects the books.

You should now be able to answer "what are determiners?," define determiner, and use these small but determined words correctly in your papers and essays. Further help with writing those papers can be found at EasyBib Plus, where you can double-check your grammar and also check your work for accidental plagiarism. Check out some of our other pages, such as adverb, preposition, and interjection while you’re at it. The citation creation tool at EasyBib.com will help you to create citations in MLA or APA format, plus many more styles, helping to ensure a final draft that's perfectly referenced and ready to impress.