Definition and Examples of Determiners in English

determiners

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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. It is also known as a prenominal modifier. Basically, determiners come at the start of a noun phrase and tell more about what comes after it (or them, in the case of a phrase that has more than one determiner before the noun).

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), difference words (other, another), and possessive determiners (my, your, his, her, its, our, their).

Authors Martha Kolln and Robert Funk describe them this way: "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." ("Understanding English Grammar," 5th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1998)

A Slippery Grammatical Label

Determiners are functional elements of structure and not formal word classes, because the group of words contains some items that are nouns, some that are pronouns, and some that are adjectives. Authors Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner explain: "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." ("Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar." Oxford University Press, 1994)

Rules on Multiple Determiners

English has rules on word order, such as when there are multiple adjectives in a row modifying the same noun (quantity before age, before color, for example). The same goes for when you use multiple determiners in a row. 

"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)

Count and Noncount Nouns

Some determiners work with count nouns, and some don't. For example, many attaches to count nouns, such as "The child had many marbles." In contrast, you would not use much to attach to count nouns such as marbles but noncount nouns such as work, for example in, "The college student had much work to finish before finals week." Other determiners work with either one, such as all: "The child had all the marbles" and "The college student had all the work to finish before finals week."