Adjectives vs Determiners

by Craig Shrives

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The Difference between Adjectives and Determiners

For centuries, the term "adjective" has been used for a word type now called a determiner.

For example, the words "his," "this," "many" are classified as possessive adjective, demonstrative adjective, and indefinite adjective respectively. However, in contemporary grammar, these are called determiners, specifically possessive determiner, demonstrative determiner, and indefinite determiner.

Interesting Point

Determiners are still classified as adjectives by most people, but this situation is changing quickly.
adjective vs determiner
(See this graph for yourself in Google's Ngram viewer.)
A descriptive adjective will usually fit into one of the following categories:
  • Appearance. attractive, burly, clean, dusty
  • Colour. azure, blue, cyan, dark
  • Condition. absent, broken, careful, dead
  • Personality. annoying, brave, complex, dizzy
  • Quantity. ample, bountiful, countless, deficient
  • Sense. aromatic, bitter, cold, deafening
  • Size and Shape. angular, broad, circular, deep
  • Time. ancient, brief, concurrent, daily
Determiners, on the other hand, indicate qualities such as the following:
  • Possession. my dog, their opinions
  • Specificity. that dog, these opinions
  • Quantity. one dog, many opinions
  • Definiteness. a dog, the opinions

The Four Main Differences between Adjectives and Determiners

They ARE Different!

Regardless of whether you use the word "determiner" or "adjective" for words like "my," "that," "one," and "some," this much is true: determiners are not like descriptive adjectives.
Here are the four main differences between determiners and normal adjectives:

(Difference 1) A determiner cannot have a comparative form.
  • Descriptive adjective: pretty > prettier
  • ("Prettier" is the comparative form of "pretty.")
  • Determiner: that > [nothing fits here]
  • (There is no comparative form.)
(Difference 2) A determiner often cannot be removed from the sentence.
  • Descriptive adjectives removed: The young boy stole a silver watch.
  • (This is grammatically sound with the normal adjectives removed.)
  • Determiner: The Young boy stole a silver watch.
  • (The sentence is flawed with the determiners removed.)
(Difference 3) A determiner often refers back to something (i.e., it's like a pronoun).
  • Determiner: Release those prisoners immediately.
  • (The determiner "those" refers back to something previously mentioned. In other words, it has an antecedent (the thing it refers to). Descriptive adjectives do not have an antecedent.)
(Difference 4) A determiner cannot be used as a subject complement.
  • Descriptive adjective: She is intelligent.
  • (The descriptive adjective "intelligent" can be used after a linking verb (here, "is") and function as a subject complement.)
  • Determiner: She is [nothing fits here].
  • (You can't use a determiner as a subject complement. NB: If you think you've found a determiner that fits, then you've found a pronoun not a determiner.)

Six Types of Determiner

Here is a brief description for each of the six types of determiner:

(1) Possessive Determiners

The possessive determiners (called "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.
  • When a man opens a car door for his wife, it's either a new car or a new wife. (Prince Philip)
  • The only time a wife listens to her husband is when he's asleep. (Cartoonist Chuck Jones)
Read more about possessive determiners/adjectives.

(2) Demonstrative Determiners

The demonstrative determiners (called "demonstrative adjectives" in traditional grammar) are "this," "that," "these," and "those." A demonstrative determiner makes a noun (or a pronoun) more specific by relating it to something previously mentioned or something being demonstrated.
  • That man's silence is wonderful to listen to. (Novelist Thomas Hardy)
  • Maybe this world is another planet's hell. (Writer Aldous Huxley)
Read more about demonstrative determiners/adjectives.

(3) Articles

The articles are the words "a," "an," and "the." They are used to define whether something is specific or unspecific.
  • The poets are only the interpreters of the gods. (Philosopher Socrates)
  • I'm an optimist but an optimist who carries a raincoat. (Prime Minister Harold Wilson)
Read more about the articles.

(4) Numbers (or Cardinal Numbers)

The cardinal numbers are "one," "two," "three," etc. (as opposed by "first," "second," "third," etc., which are known as ordinal numbers). Cardinal numbers are used to specify quantity. They are part of the group of determiners known as "quantifiers."
  • If two wrongs don't make a right, try three wrongs. (Canadian educator Laurence Peter)
  • One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives. (Greek Tragedian Euripides)
Read more about "quantifiers" on the determiners page.

(5) Indefinite Determiners

The most common indefinite determiners (called "indefinite adjectives" in traditional grammar) are "no," "any," "many," "few," "several," and "some." Indefinite determiners modify nouns in a non-specific way usually relating to quantity. Like numbers, they are part of the group of determiners known as "quantifiers."
  • If you live to be one hundred, you've got it made. Very few people die past that age. (Comedian George Burns)
  • If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee. (US President Abraham Lincoln)
Read more about indefinite determiners/adjectives.

(6) Interrogative Determiners

The most common interrogative determiners (called "interrogative adjectives" in traditional grammar) are "which," "what," and "whose." They are used to ask questions.
  • If you decide that you're indecisive, which one are you?
  • What hair colour do they put on bald person's driving licence?
Read more about interrogative determiners/adjectives.

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See Also

Compound adjectives Predicate adjectives

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