Definition and Examples of Determiners in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

determiners
The most frequently occurring determiners are the definite article the and the indefinite article a(n). (artpartner-images/Getty Images)

In English grammar, a determiner is a word or a group of words that specifies, identifies, or quantifies the noun or noun phrase that follows it. Also known as a prenominal modifier.

Determiners include articles (a, an, the); cardinal numbers (one, two, three . . .) and ordinal numbers (first, second, third . . .); demonstratives (this, that, these, those); partitives (some of, piece of, and others); quantifiers (most, all, and others); and possessive determiners (my, your, his, her, its, our, their.)

Determiners are functional elements of structure and not formal word classes

Examples and Observations

  • "Why, I guess that book has all the stories of everybody who's ever been in the family."
    (Augusta Trobaugh, Resting in the Bosom of the Lamb. Baker Book House, 1999
  • "Both the cockroach and the bird would get along very well without us, although the cockroach would miss us most."
    (attributed to Joseph Wood Krutch
  • "When I woke up this morning my girlfriend asked me, 'Did you sleep good?' I said 'No, I made a few mistakes.'"
    (attributed to American comedian Steven Wright)
  • "A party of refugees suggested that she join them; she spent the night in a bicycle shop with no bicycles, on the floor, together with three elderly women who lay, she said, like three logs in a row."
    (Vladimir Nabokov, "'That in Aleppo Once . . ..'" The Atlantic Monthly, 1944​

A Slippery Grammatical Label

  • "The determiner class is one of the structure classes that straddle the line between a word class and a function. On the one hand, our most common determiners, the articles, do indeed constitute a small, closed structure class. At the other end of the spectrum are the possessive nouns, which function as determiners while retaining their membership in the open class 'noun.' In between are the subclasses of determiners that belong to the closed pronoun class: Demonstrative, possessive, and indefinite pronouns all function as determiners; and, of course, as pronouns they also function as nominals (in fact, 'pronominal' would be a more accurate label than 'pronoun').

    "Determiners signal nouns in a variety of ways: They may define the relationship of the noun to the speaker or listener (or reader); they may identify the noun as specific or general; they may quantify it specifically or refer to quantity in general."
    (Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, Understanding English Grammar, 5th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1998

    Limiting Adjectives?

    "Determiners are sometimes called limiting adjectives in traditional grammar. However, they not only differ from the class of adjectives by meaning, but also must normally precede ordinary adjectives in noun phrase structure. Further, among determiners themselves there are co-occurrence restrictions and fairly strict rules of word order."
    (Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar.

    Oxford University Press, 1994

    Word Order With Multiple Determiners

    When there is more than one determiner, follow these useful rules:

    a) Place all and both in front of other determiners.
    E.g. We ate all the food. Both my sons are at college.
    b) Place what and such in front of a and an in exclamations.
    E.g. What an awful day! I've never seen such a crowd!
    c) Place many, much, more, most, few, little after other determiners.
    E.g. His many successes made him famous. They have no more food. What little money I have is yours.

    (Geoffrey N. Leech, Benita Cruickshank, and Roz Ivanič, An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage, 2nd ed. Longman, 2001)

    "Nouns can . . . be introduced by more than one determiner: the six houses, all eight dogs, a few people--and these elements must . . . occur in a particular order. We know, for example, that *eight all dogs is ungrammatical but that all eight dogs is fine. We also know that certain nouns need no determiner at all: generic nouns and mass nouns can occur without them.

    Lions roar. (generic plural noun)
    Lou makes lovely jewelry. (mass noun)

    And proper names usually occur without determiners, too."
    (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth, 2010)

     

    Etymology
    From the Latin, "limit, boundary"

    Pronunciation: dee-TURM-i-nur