Determiners in English grammar

(Use and meaning of English determiners)

Table of contents – determiners

On this page you will find the following:

  1. English determiners
  2. Categories of determiners
  3. Zero determiners
  4. Further explanations and exercises

What are determiners?

When learning a language, students frequently come across the term determiner. Occasionally, it is also called determinative. In fact, it is not about a separate part of speech but rather a group that is composed of different parts of speech. They are called determiners in order to evade an exact classification of words that all behave according to the same pattern (in relation to the respective noun). They always appear in combination with a noun. Compare:

  • Determiners usually appear directly before the corresponding noun:
    • “Let’s watch a movie.”
      • In this example, the noun ‘movie’ comes directly after the determiner ‘a’ without any other words in between.
  • By all means, they can also stand further away from their related noun, which means that other words such as adjectives can be positioned between noun and determiner:
    • “Can you see those bright lights?”
      • Here, the adjective ‘bright’ appears between determiner and noun.
    • “This is the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen.”
      • In this case, two additional words ‘most’ and ‘beautiful’ appear before the noun.

What words can be classified as determiner?

In English grammar, determiners or determinatives can belong to the categories listed below. Be aware that this may vary in other languages. In the following examples, the noun referred to by the corresponding determiner is marked in red. Compare:

  • Articles, which include the definite ‘the’ and the indefinite ones ‘a’ and ‘an’, can be determiners:
    • “Excuse me, where is the post office?”
      • Here, the noun is determined by ‘the’.
    • “You have an extraordinary sense of humour.”
      • In this example, the determiner even appears before the adjective ‘extraordinary’ that comes before the noun ‘sense’.
  • Demonstrative pronouns, such as ‘this, that, those’, and ‘these’, also belong to the class:
    • “I need these books for my English lesson.”
    • “Is that building the museum?”
  • The question wordswhat, which’, and ‘whose’ are part of the group too:
    • Whose notebook is this?”
    • Which bag is yours? The brown or the black one?”
  • Possessive pronouns, which are words such as ‘my, your, our, his, her’ etc., can also be English determiners. In addition, these can include constructions in the genitive case, such as ‘my father’s, tomorrow’s’ or ‘Jack’s’:
    • “Is the red one your car?”
    • “Have you seen their new house?”
      • The adjective ‘new’ stands between ‘their’ as determiner and ‘house’.
    • “He always wants to be everybody’s darling.”
      • Here, the ‘’s’ indicates possession.
    • Tomorrow’s meeting will surely be boring.”
      • In this sentence, the ‘’s’ marks the genitive case and serves as a determiner.
  • Terms that express undefined quantities (so-called quantifiers), such as ‘some, many, all, few’, are also added to determinatives. However, numbers, such as ‘two’ or ‘ten’ for example, designate a defined quantity and are usually not regarded as part of this group:
    • “There’s some cake on the table.”
    • All passengers have to show their ID.”

Zero determiner

As it is not essential for determiners to appear in a clause, they are called zero determiners or zero articles in constructions in which they are not present. In such cases, the noun is usually used alone. Compare:

  • In clauses with zero articles, the determiner is missing (this frequently happens with plural nouns):
    • Parents need to have a lot of patience.”
      • The noun ‘parents’ expresses plural and appears alone at the beginning of the sentence.
    • “Do you drink coffee?”
      • coffee’ is an uncountable noun and does not require a determiner either in this case.

Further explanations related to ‘Determiners’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Use and meaning of English determiners (determinatives)’ and may be helpful:

  • Use of English nouns
  • Use of English adjectives
  • Cardinal numbers in English grammar
  • List of exercises about parts of speech
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