Determiner

by Craig Shrives

What Is a Determiner?

A determiner is a word placed in front of a noun to specify quantity (e.g., "one dog," "many dogs") or to clarify what the noun refers to (e.g., "my dog," "that dog," "the dog"). All determiners can be classified as one of the following:
• An article (a/an, the)
• A demonstrative (this, that, these, those)
• A possessive (my, your, his, her, its, our, their)
• A quantifier (common examples include many, much, more, most, some)

• Types of Determiner
• Articles (Type of Determiner)
• Examples of Articles
• Demonstratives (Type of Determiner)
• Examples of Demonstrative Determiners
• Possessives (Type of Determiner)
• Examples of Possessive Determiners
• Quantifiers (Type of Determiner)
• Examples of Quantifiers
• Video Lesson
• Printable Test

Articles (Type of Determiner)

The articles are the words "a," "an," and "the." They define whether something is specific or unspecific. There are two types of article:

(1) The Definite Article (The)

"The" is called the definite article. It defines its noun as something specific (e.g., something previously mentioned or known, something unique, something being identified by the speaker).
• This is the lake.
• (This is a previously specified lake, i.e., one already known to the readers.)

(2) The Indefinite Article (A, An)

"A" and "an" are called the indefinite articles. They define their noun as something unspecific (e.g., something generic, something mentioned for the first time).
• This is a lake.
• (This is a previously unspecified lake.)

Examples of Articles

• I'm not a troublemaker. I'm the troublemaker!
• (This means "I'm not any old troublemaker. I'm the one you've all heard of.")
• To the uneducated, an A is just three sticks. (Author AA Milne)
• ("The uneducated" is a specific group of people. "An A" means any letter A.)
• The poets are only the interpreters of the gods. (Philosopher Socrates)
• ("The poets" and "the interpreters" are being identified. "The gods" are something known.)
We're great at choosing between "a/an" and "the," so we don't need to delve too deeply into the rules. That said though, we're not so great at choosing between "a" and "an," and using the wrong one is by far the most common mistake involving articles. There are four noteworthy issues related to articles.

(Issue 1) Using the wrong indefinite article.

Writers who dogmatically follow the rule that "an" precedes a vowel and "a" precedes a consonant often use the wrong indefinite article. That rule is not entirely accurate. "An" is used before a vowel sound, and "a" is used before a consonant sound. The word sound is important because consonants – typically in abbreviations – can create vowel sounds (e.g., MOT, NTU), and vowels can create consonant sounds (e.g., unicorn, united, Ouija, one-off).
• Buy a house in an hour.
• (House and hour start with the same three letters, but house attracts a, and hour attracts an. House starts with a consonant sound. Hour starts with a vowel sound.)
• I had a unique opportunity to strike an unexpected blow.
Be mindful of the distinction between initialism abbreviations (spoken as individual letters) and acronyms (spoken as words):
• An MoD official and a MAFF official visited an NBC facility of a NATO country.
• (The M and the N of the initialisms MoD (Ministry of Defence) and NBC (Nuclear Biological and Chemical) are pronounced "en" and "em." The N and M of the acronyms NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) are pronounced "nuh" and "muh.")
The words historic, historical, historian, horrific, and hotel are worthy of special mention. These words start with a consonant sound, as soft as it might be. If you're drawn to "an historic" or "an horrific," give your aitches more "huh" until you're comfortable with using "a."
• The attraction of power can be a disease, a horrific disease. (Actor Liam Cunningham)

(Issue 2) Writing a job title or an office name with a capital letter.

A job title (e.g., president, judge, director) or the name of office (parliament, court, accounts section) is given a capital letter when it refers to a specific person or office, i.e., when it's a proper noun. So, when the definite article (i.e., the) appears before such a title or name, there's a pretty good chance you'll need a capital letter.

Here's the guidance: If the job title or office name is being used for its dictionary definition, i.e., as a common noun, then don't use a capital letter. However, if the job title or office name nails it down to one specific person or office, then use a capital letter.
• The King was a king among kings.
• (The King specifies an individual, but a king and kings do not. The first one is a proper noun. The other two are common nouns.)
• The Prime Minister said: "Being a prime minister is a lonely job...you cannot lead from the crowd." (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)
• (The Prime Minister specifies an individual, but a prime minister does not.)

(Issue 3) Capitalizing "The" when it starts a name (e.g., The Beatles).

Some names (particularly band names) start with "The" (e.g., The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols). When such names appear in running text, you have a choice whether to write "The" (with a capital letter) or "the." There's no consensus among the leading style guides on this point, so go with your preference.
• (Logically, this is correct, but it's far too unwieldy. No one would write it. Most people would write "Did you download the Clash album?".)
Bear in mind that you might stumble across this issue with foreign names.
• Gina Vitale: The restaurant is called "The La Trattoria".
Michael Felgate: "The La Trattoria" means The The Trattoria.
Gina Vitale: I know.
• (This is an extract from the 1999 Hugh Grant film Mickey Blue Eyes. With more clarity of thought, the owner might have called the restaurant "La Trattoria.")
• Does it disturb anyone else that "The Los Angeles Angels" baseball team translates directly as "The The Angels Angels"? (Anon)
• (There's no fix for this one. Just go with it.)

Demonstratives (Type of Determiner)

The demonstrative determiners (known as demonstrative adjectives in traditional grammar) are this, that, these, and those. A demonstrative determiner defines where its noun or pronoun is in relation to the speaker.

This and these define close things (in terms of distance, psychological closeness or time). That and those define distant things.

Examples of Demonstrative Determiners

In these examples, the noun or pronoun being modified is in bold.
• This shark is pregnant.
• That one looks worried.
• In these matters, the only certainty is nothing is certain. (Roman scientist Pliny the Elder)
• I regret those times when I've chosen the dark side. I've wasted time being unhappy. (Actress Jessica Lange)

Why Should I Care about Demonstratives?

There are three noteworthy issues related to demonstrative determiners.

(Issue 1) Make sure it's clear what your demonstrative determiner refers to.

When you use a demonstrative determiner, it's worth doing a quick check to ensure it's clear what your determiner refers to. Look at this example:
• This issue will be raised at the AGM.
• (What issue? If you can answer this question quickly because the answer is evident in the previous nearby text, then your determiner is safe.)
Knowing exactly what their determiners refer to, writers sometimes assume their readers do too. All too often though, readers don't. If your determiner could feasibly refer back to more than one thing, you've created ambiguity.
• The talk will cover America's nationally determined contribution (NDC) and the impact of a US-China trade war. This issue will also be addressed in sidebar meetings. (ambiguous)
• (Most readers would assume that this refers to "US-China trade war" because it's physically closer to this than "NDC," but it's not entirely clear. It could feasibly refer to either or even both.)
If you spot possible ambiguity, a good option is to avoid the demonstrative determiner and just spell it out. ("The trade war will also be addressed in sidebar meetings" is an option.)

(Issue 2) Consider using a demonstrative determiner and a noun to replace an ambiguous demonstrative pronoun.

Demonstrative pronouns are just like demonstrative determiners except they stand alone and don't modify nouns. Demonstrative pronouns are even more prone to being ambiguous than demonstrative determiners.
• According to his Twitter feed, Professor Smith has been selected to lead a charity climb up Mount Everest. He will cease work on Monday to prepare. That surprised everybody. (ambiguous)
• (It's unclear what That refers to. The ambiguity could be removed by using a demonstrative determiner and a noun, e.g., That selection, That goal, That timing, That announcement. There are, of course, other options to kill the ambiguous That, e.g., His selection, The announcement.)

(Issue 3) Make sure your demonstrative determiner and its noun match in number.

This and that modify singular nouns. These and those modify plural nouns. This doesn't usually cause an issue for native English speakers except with the words kind and type.
• These kind of things.
• (It should be kinds.)
• Those type of issues.
• (It should be types.)

Possessives (Type of Determiner)

The possessive determiners (known as possessive adjectives in traditional grammar) are my, your, his, her, its, our, their, and whose. A possessive determiner sits before a noun (or a pronoun) to show who or what owns it.

Examples of Possessive Determiners

In the examples below, the nouns being modified are in bold. The table also shows how each possessive determiner corresponds to a personal pronoun.
Personal PronounPossessive DeterminerExample
ImyI do not choose that my grave should be dug while I am still alive. (Queen Elizabeth I)
youyourIf you want peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies. (South African cleric Desmond Tutu)
hehisIf a man could have half of his wishes, he would double his troubles. (Founding Father Benjamin Franklin)
sheherShe got her looks from her father. He's a plastic surgeon. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
ititsWorry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow. It only saps today of its joy. (Author Leo Buscaglia)
weourHow we spend our days is how we spend our lives. (Author Annie Dillard)
theytheirMen are like steel. When they lose their temper, they lose their worth. (Martial artist Chuck Norris)
whowhoseThe key is to keep company only with people whose presence calls forth your best. (Greek philosopher Epictetus)

Why Should I Care about Possessive Determiners?

There are two noteworthy points related to possessive determiners.

(Point 1) Use their instead of his/her.

In English, we don't have a singular non-gender-specific possessive determiner that can be used for people. (We have its, but you can't use its for people.)
• Each owner is responsible for its dog. (Its can't be used with people.)
So, when your singular person could be male or female, you have two options:

(1) Use their.

• Each owner is responsible for their dog.
• (Using their to refer to a singular noun (here, owner) is acceptable. This is the best option.)

(2) Use his/her.

• Each owner is responsible for his/her dog.
• (This is acceptable, but it's clumsy.)
There used to be a third option:

(3) Use his with a caveat.

"Throughout this document his means his/her."
[This used to be a common caveat at the front of documents.]
• Each owner is responsible for his dog.
• (Avoid this option. It's outdated.)

(Point 2) Don't confuse a possessive determiner with an identical-sounding contraction.

Grammar mistakes with possessive determiners are rare, but spelling mistakes with possessive determiners are common. Given how common these determiners are, misspelling them (particularly if you make a habit of it) will smash your credibility. There are four common spelling mistakes with possessive determiners, but fixing all four is easy because they're all made the same way – by confusing the possessive determiner with an identical-sounding contraction.

The contraction it's is not a possessive. It's is a contraction of it is or it has. This is a 100% rule. If you can't expand your it's to it is or it has, then it's wrong.
• A country can be judged by the quality of it's proverbs.
To some extent, this mistake is understandable because apostrophes are used for possession (e.g., the dog's nose). But it's has nothing to do with possession. No, really, it doesn't.

The same is true for you're (a contraction of you are), they're (a contraction of they are), and who's (a contraction of who is or who has). Do not confuse these with your, their or there, or whose.
• Even if you fall on you're face, you're still moving forward.
• (The first you're is wrong. The second is correct.)
• Forgive your enemies, but never forget there names.
• Never go to a doctor who's office plants have died.
If you've used an apostrophe, test your apostrophe by expanding your word back into two words. If you can't, the apostrophe version is wrong.

Quantifiers (Type of Determiner)

Any determiner that refers, even loosely, to an amount or a quantity can be classified as a quantifier (called an indefinite adjective in traditional grammar). So, numbers (one dog, two dogs) are quantifiers. Not all quantifiers are so specific though. Many refer to an undefined amount or quantity. The most common ones are any, all, many, much, several and some (these are called indefinite adjectives in traditional grammar).

Examples of Quantifiers

• Many people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so. (Philosopher Bertrand Russell)
• I bought some batteries, but they weren't included. (Comedian Steven Wright)
• Any kid will run any errand for you, if you ask at bedtime. (Comedian Red Skelton)

Why Should I Care about Quantifiers?

Below are four commonly discussed issues related to quantifiers that precede nouns. There are more issues related to quantifiers that stand alone (called indefinite pronouns in traditional grammar).

(Issue 1) Use fewer with plural nouns and less with singular nouns.

Less and fewer are quantifiers. While there are some quirks with less and fewer, the general ruling is that fewer is used with plural nouns while less is used with singular nouns.
• A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls. (Politician Dan Quayle)
• I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies. (Swiss architect Le Corbusier)
A key point is that less is not always a determiner, even if it precedes a noun.
• The less men think, the more they talk. (Philosopher Montesquieu)
• (As it is here, less is commonly an adverb. When it's an adverb, fewer isn't an option.)

(Issue 2) Save a word. Write "all the" not "all of the."

If you're unsure whether to use "all the" or "all of the" before a noun, use "all the" because it saves a word. If you can't bear how it sounds without "of", get over it.
• You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. (US President Abraham Lincoln)
• (There must have been a strong urge to use "all of the" because it would have chimed nicely with "some of the." However, succinctness trumped rhythm. Good skills, Abe.)
It's not the same deal with "all my" (or any possessive determiner) or "all of my." Grammatically, both are sound, but often omitting "of" sounds too awkward. Follow in your instincts.
• All my friends left me when I was 12. (Singer Taylor Swift)
• All of my songs are autobiographical. (Taylor Swift)
• (Both are fine. Taylor followed her instincts.)

(Issue 3) Spell out the numbers one to nine but use numerals for the numbers 10 and above…or don't. It's your choice.

Writers frequently ask whether they should write numbers as numerals (e.g., 11 cats) or spell them out (e.g., eleven cats). Well, it's a matter of style. Those who write business or technical documents tend to use numerals far more liberally than those writing stories or verse. If you want a more definitive answer though, the most common convention is to spell out the numbers one to nine but to use numerals for 10 and above. (This is by no means a rule.)
• Success is falling 9 times and getting up ten. (Singer Jon Bon Jovi)

(Point 4) When writing numbers in full, hyphenate all numbers between 21 and 99 (less those divisible by 10).

Regardless of where they appear within the whole number, all numbers between 21 and 99 (except 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, and 90) should be hyphenated.
• 51 = fifty-one
• 234 = two hundred thirty-four
Oh, if you're writing to an international audience, don't use the word "and."
• 3,567 = three thousand five hundred sixty-seven
• (There's no comma in the full version.)
• 25,223 = twenty five thousand two hundred twenty three
• (Twenty five and twenty three should be hyphenated.)
Brits, far more than Americans, are likely to include the word "and" when writing numbers in full. Try to avoid "and" though because it's widely used to denote a decimal point. So, many would take "one hundred and one" as 100.1 (not 101) and "seven hundred and twenty-four" as 700.24 (not 724). (Interestingly, if you adopt the no-"and" rule and start spelling out all the numbers from 1 upwards, you'll reach 1000 before you use the letter "a.") Read more about writing numbers in full.

The grammar world is divided on whether determiners are classified as adjectives. In traditional grammar, determiners are classified as adjectives, but many contemporary grammarians insist that determiners aren't adjectives. This situation is unhelpful because terms like "possessive adjective" are still commonly used, particularly on foreign-language courses. Anyway, whatever side of that debate you're on, this much is true: there are some big differences between normal adjectives and determiners.

(Big Difference 1) Unlike a normal adjective, a determiner cannot have a comparative form.

Happy ottersHappier otters
DeterminerComparative Form
Those ottersThere are no comparative forms of determiners.

(Big Difference 2) Unlike a normal adjective, a determiner often cannot be removed from the sentence.

The hungry herons visited our fishing lake.The herons visited our lake.Hungry herons visited fishing lake. (It doesn't work.)

(Big Difference 3) Unlike a normal adjective, a determiner can have an antecedent (i.e., something it refers back to).

• The hungry herons visited our fishing lake.
• (Often a determiner refers back to something previously mentioned. In this example, the herons tells us we're talking about herons that we've already discussed. Similarly, our refers back to some people. Normal adjectives (e.g., hungry and fishing) don't refer back to things; i.e., they don't have antecedents.)

Click on the Two Determiners(Interactive Game)

Here is an 8-minute video summarizing this lesson on determiners.

Why Should I Care about Determiners?

We've covered the issues with determiners as we looked at each type. Those aside, it will be worth learning about determiners if you have young children because determiners feature in the primary-school grammar curriculum. Your child is likely to get questions like these:

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