French Determiners: Adjectifs déterminants

The organic farmer's market in Paris' Batignolles district.
Photo: Hometown Paris   

The grammatical term "determiner" refers to a word, either an article or a certain type of adjective, which simultaneously introduces and modifies a noun. Determiners, also known as non-qualifying adjectives, are much more common in French than in English; some sort of determiner is nearly always required in front of each noun used and has to agree with it in gender and number.

The main difference between a qualifying (descriptive) adjective and a non-qualifying adjective (determiner) has to do with usage.

Qualifying adjectives qualify or describe a noun, while non-qualifying adjectives introduce a noun and may determine or specify it at the same time.

In addition, qualifying adjectives may be:

  • Placed before or after the noun they modify
  • Separated from the noun they modify by other words
  • Modified by a comparative or superlative adverb
  • Used in conjunction with one or more other qualifying adjectives to modify a single noun

Determiners, on the other hand,

  • Always directly precede the noun they modify
  • Cannot themselves be modified
  • Cannot be used with other determiners

They can, however, be used with qualifying adjectives, as in ma belle maison, or "my beautiful house."

Types of French Determiners

Articles
 
Definite articlesDefinite articles denote a specific noun, or a noun in general.
 le, la, l', les
the
 
J'ai mangé l'oignon.
I ate the onion.
 
Indefinite articlesIndefinite articles refer to an unspecified noun.
 un, une / des
a, an / some
 
J'ai mangé un oignon.
I ate an onion.
 
Partitive articlesPartitive articles indicate an unknown quantity, usually of food or drink.
 du, de la, de l', des
some
 
J'ai mangé de l'oignon.
I ate some onion.
 
Adjectives
 
Demonstrative adjectivesDemonstrative adjectives indicate a specific noun.
 ce, cet, cette / ces
this, that / these, those
 
J'ai mangé cet oignon.
I ate that onion.
 
Exclamative adjectivesExclamative adjectives express a strong sentiment.
 quel, quelle / quels, quelles
what a / what
 
Quel oignon!
What an onion!
 
Indefinite adjectivesAffirmative indefinite adjectives modify nouns in a unspecific sense.
 autre, certain, chaque, plusieurs...
other, certain, each, several...
 
J'ai mangé plusieurs oignons.
I ate several onions.
 
Interrogative adjectivesInterrogative adjectives clarify "which" of something one is referring to.
 quel, quelle, quels, quelles
which
 
Quel oignon ?
Which onion?
 
Negative adjectivesNegative indefinite adjectives negate or cast doubt on a quality of the noun.
 ne... aucun, nul, pas un...
no, not a single, not one...
 
Je n'a mangé aucun oignon.
I didn't eat a single onion.
 
Numerical adjectivesNumerical adjectives include all numbers; however, only cardinal numbers are determiners, because fractions and ordinal numbers can be used with articles.
 un, deux, trois...
one, two, three...
 
J'ai mangé trois oignons.
I ate three onions.
 
Possessive adjectivesPossessive adjectives modify a noun with its possessor.
 Mon, ta, ses...
My, your, his...
 
J'ai mangé ton oignon.
I ate your oignon.
 
Relative adjectivesRelative adjectives, which are very formal, indicate a link between a noun and an antecedent.
 lequel, laquelle, lesquels, lesquelles
which, said
Il a mangé l'oignon, lequel oignon était pourri.
He ate the onion, said onion was rotten.