Determiners masterclass

This post helps you understand what a determiner is, different types of determiners, and how to use them correctly in a sentence.

What is a determiner?

A determiner is a word that sits right before a noun in a noun phrase. A determiner gives information about a noun, generally about its possession or quantity. Note that a determiner must come before a singular countable noun.

Determiners are a part of premodifiers.

Examples:

  • The party was amazing. We had a lot of fun. (Referring to a specific party)
  • We were in awe of his house. It was luxirious. (Modifying the noun by talking about its possession)
  • Look at that building. This is where Ron lives. (Modifying the noun by talking about its vicinity and number)
  • Many people have joined the movement. (Modifying the noun by talking about its number vaguely)
  • You can take either room. They both are vacant.

The words in red are determiners. They are sitting before a noun and giving information about them.

Determiners explanation infographic
Determiners explanation infographic

Types of determiners in English

A determiner, based on how it modifies a noun, can be divided into the following categories:

  1. Articles
  2. Possessive adjectives
  3. Demonstrative adjectives 
  4. Distributive adjectives
  5. Quantifiers 
PremodifiersMeaningExamples
Articlesa, an = refers to an unspecified singular countable noun

the = refers to a specified singular countable noun
This is a book.
I don’t have an apple.
The movie was great.
Possessive adjectivesrefers to the possession of a nounMy house is not as big as yours.
I love your dog.
You can’t question his loyalty.
Demonstrative adjectivesrefers to a noun that is close or far away from the speaker and its numberDon’t touch this box.
They are planning to cut that tree.
These candies are delicious.
Do you know those people?
Distributive adjectivesrefers to members of a group separatelyYou can take either box.
Neither team deserved to win the match.
Every team played well.
Quantifiersto talk about the number of the nounBring some books to read.
I have a few friends to meet. Many people are waiting to see me fall.
There is a lot of money in this.

Articles

Articles specify or generalize a noun. There are two types of articles:

  1. Definite article (the)
  2. Indefinite article (a, an)

Definite article (the)

The definite article makes the noun it modifies specific. It helps us identify the noun the speaker refers to in a sentence.

Did you like the book? We loved it.

The definite article (the) is sitting before the noun ‘book’ and making it specific. The speaker, using the definite article, is referring to a particular book.

I am the teacher. Do what you said you would do when you see me.

I am not any teacher. I am the teacher you have been talking about. Both the speaker and the reader know the guy.

NOTE: the definite article is used when both the speaker and the listener/reader know the noun the speaker is talking about. If that’s not the case, use a post-modifier to give essential information and make the noun specific.

The man in the blue jacket is my history teacher.

Here, we have used a prepositional phrase (postmodifier) to make the noun ‘man’ specific. Without the postmodifier, the readers won’t understand or identify the man the speaker is referring to.

More examples:

  • What are you going to do with the money? That’s a lot of money.
  • The mailman is waiting for you at the main gate.
  • We loved the party. It was one of the best parties I have been to.
  • Did the teacher say anything after I left?

Indefinite article (a, an)

An indefinite refers to a singular countable noun that is not specific.

A = used before a singular countable noun or an adjective whose sound of the first letter is a consonant
An = used before a singular countable noun or an adjective whose sound of the first letter is a vowel (a, e, i, o, u)

Examples:

  • I need a room. Could you help me get it? (One room that is not specific)
  • Do you have an extra pen? I will return it in some time. (one pen that is not specific, any pen)
  • I am feeling bored. let’s go and watch a movie.
  • Call an ambulance right now. He’s hit by a car.
  • My friend Mony bought a car last month.
  • Are you carrying an umbrella with you? Seems like it is going to rain.

Note: we can use postmodifiers after the noun to limit the meaning of the noun, but it will still remain generic.

  • I want to hire a teacher who works at a government school.

It is clear that the speaker won’t accept any teacher; the description of the teacher limits its meaning, but the speaker is still not referring to one particular teacher. the teacher can be of any gender, but they should be a government teacher, any government teacher.

Possessive adjective

Possessive adjectives modify a noun by indicating their possession (who it is owned by). Here are the possessive adjectives we have in English:

my, your, his, her, own, their, its

I love your bike. It looks awesome.

Your is the possessive adjective that’s modifying the noun ‘bike’ and indicating the person who owns it: you.

You can use my laptop if you need it.

Here, the possessive adjective ‘my’ modifies the noun ‘laptop’ by talking about its possession: I own it.

More examples:

  • My business is growing rapidly.
  • We don’t want to take his brother on this trip; he does not listen to anyone and create ruckus.
  • If they are troubling you, call their parents and tell them everything.
  • I bought this bike last year. Its performance has been amazing.
  • They have finalized our project. We are so happy.
  • Look at her dress. I have never seen anything like this in my life.

Important notes:

1. If the gender of the noun (singular) you are talking about the possession of is unclear or neutral, use the possessive adjective ‘their’. Note it generally refers to the possession of a plural noun, but here, it works as a singular possessive adjective.

  • If a person comes before 9 am, their entry is prohibited.

The gender of the noun ‘person’ is not clear. In such cases, we use the possessive ‘their’.

Alternative:

  • If a person comes before 9 am, his entry is prohibited. (correct but sexist towards women)
  • If a person comes before 9 am, her entry is prohibited. (correct but less common and sexist towards men)

2. If your sentence has multiple nouns the possessive adjective can refer to and may confuse readers in identifying which noun it actually refers to, use the noun directly instead of using the possessive adjective.

  • I will train Max, and you train Sam. But I think it’s important to check his health before training him.

In the first clause, the speaker has mentioned two people; Max and Sam. It is not clear which man the possessive adjective is referring to. According to the vicinity rule, it should be Sam as it is closest to the adjective. But do we really know if it refers to this person? No, we don’t. This is why it’s better to use the name of the person instead of using a possessive adjective.

  • I will train Max, and you train Sam. But I think it’s important to check Max’s health before training him.
  • OR

    • I will train Max, and you train Sam. But I think it’s important to check Sam’s health before training him.

    3. Don’t consuse the possessive adjective ‘Their’ with ‘They’re’.

    Students often confuse the possessive adjective ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. ‘They’re’ is a contraction of ‘they are’.

    • They’re waiting for you at the station.
    • Their parents aren’t allowing them to go on the trip.

    4. Don’t consuse the possessive adjective ‘Its’ with ‘It’s’.

    ‘It’s’ is a contraction of ‘It is’ and ‘its’ is a possessive adjective.

    Examples:

    • It’s important to exercise daily. (It is)
    • I love coming to this place. Its architecture is mind-blowing.

    Demonstrative adjectives

    Demonstrative adjectives modify a noun by talking about its number and its vicinity. Here are the demonstrative adjectives in English: this, that, these, those

    Demonstrative adjectives NumberVicinityExamples
    Thissingular (one in number)close to the speakerThis house is way too expensive.
    Thatsingular (one in number) far away from the speakerLook at that dog. How cute is he!
    Theseplural (more than one in number) close to the speaker These people will ruin your life. You need to stop hanging out with them.
    Thoseplural (more than one in number) far away from the speaker Don’t talk to those boys. They are into illegal stuff.

    More examples:

    • Can you pass that bottle?
    • We love this class.
    • We won’t be able to finish all these chocolates.
    • Those apartments were built in 1980.

    Important notes:

    1. The vicinity of the noun the demonstrative adjective refers to can be in terms of space or time.

    • I have a crush on that girl.

    The possessive adjective is referring to a noun that is one in number and far away from the speaker (in terms of spatial distance).

    • I still remember that day. It was amazing.

    Here, the possessive adjective refers to a noun that is one in number and far away from the speaker in terms of time.

    More examples:

    • Those days were amazing. We were able to do a lot of fun things. (time)
    • Can you pass those books? (space)
    • This generation will never understand the importance of hand-written letters. (time)
    • They will love this dish.

    2. Use a demonstrative adjective and a noun in place of a demonstative pronoun to avoid confusion.

    When a demonstrative pronoun can refer to multiple nouns in the previous sentence, it is better to use the noun it refers to after it. Using a noun after it makes it a demonstrative adjective (determiner).

    • Last night, I cooked pasta and invited some neigbours. Some of my family members didn’t like that.

    It is vague what some of my members didn’t like. Is it the pasta I cooked or the invitation? We don’t know what ‘that’ refers to here. In such a situation, we should use the noun the demonstrative refers to right after it.

    • Last night, I cooked pasta and invited some neighbours. Some of my family members didn’t like that pasta.
      OR
    • Last night, I cooked pasta and invited some neighbours. Some of my family members didn’t like that invitation.

    Another example:

    • The company made Allen the social media manager and decided to charge for lunch provided to the employees. Most people didn’t like that.

    It is vague what most people don’t like. Is it making Allen the social media manager or charging for lunch? We don’t know what ‘that’ refers to. In such a situation, we should use the noun the demonstrative refers to right after it.

  • The company made Allen the social media manager and decided to charge for lunch provided to the employees. Most people didn’t like that decision of charging for lunch.
  • or

    • The company made Allen the social media manager and decided to charge for lunch provided to the employees. Most people didn’t like that decision of making Allen the social media manager.

    4. Distributive adjectives

    Distributive adjectives sit just before a noun and refer to members or parts of a group separately. They refer to entities in a group separately.

    Here are the most common distributive adjectives in English: any, every, either, neither, any, and both

    I respect every person on the team.

    Here, the distributive adjective refers to all the people who are a part of the team; it is not referring to the entire team as one group. It is referring to all the elements (people) separately.

    Neither party seems to be doing clean politics.

    ‘Neither’ is the distributive adjective that’s modifying the noun ‘party’. It is referring to both parties separately. It means ‘none of the two’.

    More examples:

    • You can take either box.
    • Neither team deserved to win the match.
    • Every team played well.
    • Both girls are playing in the upcoming tournament.

    5. Quantifiers

    Quantifiers are words that modify a noun by indicating its quantity, clearly or vaguely.

    Here are the most common quantifiers in English: some, many, a lot of, a few, the few, few, much, several, plenty of, little, a little, less, etc.

    Many students have chosen not to participate in the quiz.

    The quantifier ‘many’ is modifying the noun ‘students’ and talking about its quantity. It is not referring to a number though. We can use numbers to modify a noun with a specific quantity.

    He has several projects going on these days.

    Here, the word ‘several’ is modifying the noun ‘projects’ with a vague quantity.

    There is not much water in the bottle.

    Here, the word ‘much’ is referring to a vague quantity of the noun ‘water’.

    There is a little food left in the fridge.

    Here, the quantifier ‘a little’ is modifying the noun ‘food’.

    More examples:

    • There are many good things happening in our country.
    • The project has a few flaws in it.
    • We have plenty of ideas to test.
    • The dish does not have a lot of protein in it.
    Quantifiers for countable nouns (plural) Quantifiers for uncountable nouns Quantifiers for both countable and uncountable nouns
    some, many, a few, several, plenty of, little, less, muchsome, a lot of
    Examples:

    1. Some people don’t want to work yet have everything in life.

    2. We have kept a few chocolates for you.
    Examples:

    1. Little work has been done about this case.

    2. She does not have much money with her.
    Examples:

    1. Some people are waiting for you.

    There is some food left for you in the box.

    2. A lot of teachers are protesting at the main gate.

    You need to have a lot of patience.

    Important points to note:

    1. Few, a few, and the few have different meanings and should be used accordingly.

    FEW = It has a negative connotation and is used to mean not many.
    A FEW = It has a positive meaning. It means ‘some’ but ‘not a lot’.
    THE FEW = It means ‘all that’s there’, but the number is still not big.

    Examples:

    • Only few people live close to me; I have to do everything on my own. (The number is negligible)
    • I know a few people who can help you. (some people, but not many)
    • The police locked the few people who were helping him get away. (All the people who were there, but the number was not big)

    Note that all quantifiers formed using ‘few’ are used with a plural noun.

    2. Little, a little, and the little have different meanings and should be used accordingly.

    LITTLE = It has a negative connotation and is used to mean not much.
    A LITTLE = It has a positive meaning. It means ‘some’ but ‘not a lot’.
    THE LITTLE = It means ‘all that’s there’, but the quantity is still not big.

    Examples:

    • There is little curd in the bowl. (almost nothing)
    • There is a little stain on your shirt. 
    • Jon ate the little cheese left in the fridge. (all of it, but it was not much)

    Note that all quantifiers formed using ‘little’ are used with a singular uncountable noun.

    3. Numbers can be a part of quantifiers but we don’t generally group it with determiners.

    Two or more determiners are not used from the same category. In fact, two determiners are hardly used together to modify a noun. We can have multiple premodifiers, but they need to be from different categories. Numbers are not made a part of determiners as they can be coupled with other determiners (except quantifiers).

    • The many students ❌
    • Some many students ❌
    • Those some students ❌
    • Every a lot of students ❌
    • Our some these students ❌

    I have tried showing you that two or more determiners are not used together in a noun phrase. But numbers and other determiners (leaving quantifiers) can be a part of a noun phrase and modify a noun. But note that numbers come after a determiner; they can come before a determiner.

    • These 5 students are briliant.
    • My 6 players team is doing great.
    • Those 4 girls are the best singers we have in the group.

    Note: the word ‘all’ can come before another determiner, unlike other determiners.

    • All these people love and support you.
    • All my friends are waiting for me outside.
    • All the videos I released last month are doing well.

    4. Less vs Fewer

    Both less and fewer are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be. The word ‘less’ is used to quantify an uncountable noun, and the word ‘fewer’ is used to quantify a plural noun.

    • There is less patience in you.
    • We have less work left for him.
    • These days, Amit drinks less beer than what he used to.

    Notice the nouns the word ‘less’ is modifying are uncountable.

    • We have fewer problems to deal with.
    • There were fewer students in the class last time.
    • Yesterday, there were fewer cars on roads.

    Notice the nouns ‘fewer is modifying are plural (countable).

    Position of premodifiers

    Use two or more pre-modifiers in the following structure: Determiners + Numbers + Adjectives + Noun

    Examples:

    • Look at those three huge trees in his backyard.
    • We can’t eat these many dark chocolates.
    • Look at the four tall girls.

    NOTE: We can’t use two or more types of determiners in a noun phrase.

    • A this man
    • My this car

    But we do use the following structure: quantifiers + OF + possessive adjective + noun

    • Some of my friends
    • None of your projects
    • One of his students

    Examples:

    • Some of my friends will stay here.
    • They didn’t like none of your proects.
    • We are talking about one of his students.

    But avoid using ‘all of + noun phrase’. Take out the preposition ‘of’ and save a word.

    • All of my friends are working in Delhi. 🙁
    • All my friends are working in Delhi. 🥰

    Determiners are adjectives but they are different from regular adjectives

    Determiners modify a noun like any other adjective. So, determiners perform the role of an adjective; hence, we consider them adjectives (modifiers). But they are different from regular adjectives in some areas.

    1. Determiners need to used with singular countable nouns; regular adjectives don’t.

    Singular countable nouns need to be modified with a determiner; adjectives don’t need to be there, but they can come after the determiners, but not before them.

    Examples:

    • We need a man for this job.
      (The sentence is incorrect without using the article ‘a’ before the singular countable noun.)
    • We need smart man for this job.
      (The sentence is grammatically incorrect: the noun ‘man’ needs to be modified with a determiner. The adjective can come after the determiner.)
  • We need a smart man for this job.
  • (The determiner is required to make the sentence grammatical, but the adjective can be taken out of the sentence and the sentence will still be correct.)

    2. When two determiners are used together, no conjunction or comma is used. But when two adjectives are used, they are often brought together using commas (if they are coordinate adjectives).

    • All these buildings were built in 2010.
    • I have a black and blue notebook.

    3. Regular adjectives can have comparitive and superlative degrees, but determiners can’t.

    • It is a good flat.
    • It is a better flat.
    • It is the best flat.

    Congratulations, you guys. You have mastered determiners. Be sure to share the post with others to help them understand it too.

    Leave a Comment