What Are Partitives in Grammar?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

illustration of 2 fairies holding up a banner that reads "All it takes is faith and trust ... and a little bit of pixie dust."
An example of a partitive from Walt Disney's Peter Pan, 1953).

 SongSpeckels/Getty Images

 In English grammar, a partitive is a word or phrase (such as "some of" or "a slice of") that indicates a part or quantity of something as distinct from a whole. A partitive is also called "partitive noun" or "partitive noun phrase" and is from the Latin "partitus," meaning "relating to a part."

Partitives can appear before mass (or noncount) nouns as well as count nouns. Although most partitive constructions refer to a quantity or amount, some are used to indicate quality or behavior ("the kind of teacher who...").  

Examples and Observations

In the following examples, as well as in subsequent sections, the partitives are listed in italics.

"You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by. Yes, but some of them are golden only because we let them slip."

– J.M. Barrie, "Courage." Rectorial Address delivered at St. Andrew's University, May 3, 1922

"Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do, don't need to be done."

– Andy Rooney, "60 Minutes"

"Now Murrell's eyes followed an ant on a blade of grass, up the blade and down, many times in the single moment."

– Eudora Welty, "A Still Moment." The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Harcourt, 1980

"Soap gumdrops, soap cigars, soap pickles, soap chocolates, and even a bar of soap that dyed its user an indelible blue made life exciting for the friends of a Johnson Smith addict."

– Jean Shepherd, "A Fistful of Fig Newtons." Random House, 1981

"Not a part of the rock or a speck of moss or a streak of some other mineral, it was one of those stubborn bits of green felted cardboard that these rocks were always fixed on inside of the boxes."

– Sharon Fiffer, "Buried Stuff." Minotaur Books, 2010

"It doesn’t matter if you’re a high school kid on your bike, or if you’re an egghead like me with a boatload of degrees. Anybody can be a birder."

– Ben Kingsley as Lawrence Konrad in "A Birder's Guide to Everything," 2014

"I am not just some here-today-gone-tomorrow sort of person who blows hot and cold like a feather in the windblown about by air. Oh no. Believe me, my love for you is, was and always will be true and oh-so-real."

– Dawn French, "Dear David Cassidy" in "Dear Fatty." Arrow Books, 2009

Partitives With Count Nouns and Noncount Nouns

"Count nouns that can act as the first element in such a structure (e.g. piece, bit, sort, etc.) are partitive nouns or partitives. Some words that form the second part of the construction take specific partitives (also called unit nouns)
"Partitives are useful because they provide a means of counting uncount nouns."

– Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1994

Partitives With Nouns of Location and Time

"Partitives are found with nouns of location (the end of the street, the back of the house etc.) and time (the end of the day, the middle of the week, the beginning of the month). These partitives of location and time are almost always found with the frame the + partitive + of the + noun."

– Dave Willis, Rules, "Patterns and Words: Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching." Cambridge University Press, 2003

 "One day toward the end of the month the wind veered around to the southwest again and clouds moved in, bringing with them a heavy downpour."

– John Hanson Mitchell, "Living at the End of Time: Two Years in a Tiny House." University Press of New England, 2014

Partitives With Foods and Liquids

"Some partitives, such as gallon/liter of, can be applied to any head noun that is a liquid, and partitives such as ton/gram/pound of can be used to quantify anything that is appropriately measured by weight. Similarly, partitives such as a bottle of can be applied to different types of liquids that come in this container (e.g., beer, wine, catsup, milk). In contrast, partitives used to quantify food are more restricted. Portions of baked goods such as cake, pie, pizza, and bread are measured by slices, and only bread is quantified by the partitive count noun loaf. Certain types of vegetables (e.g., cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce) are quantified by head." 

– Ron Cowan, "The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference Guide." Cambridge University Press, 2008

"The pub is very smart and popular with foreigners, who can order Leopold Bloom's lunch—a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy—for about fifteen dollars during the summer high season."

– Bill Barich, "A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish Pub." Bloomsbury, 2010

Functions of Partitives

"Partitive expressions collocate strongly with particular noncount nouns:
"Partitive expressions commonly refer to the shape, size, movement or the amount of something:
"There's a whole ... Some partitive expressions with -ful refer to containers or spaces which commonly hold the item referred to. These include bowlful of, cupful of, fistful of, handful of, mouthful of, spoonful of:
He gave me a The plural of such expressions is usually formed by adding -s after -ful."

– Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, "Cambridge Grammar of English." Cambridge University Press, 2006

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Partitives in Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/partitive-in-grammar-1691587. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Are Partitives in Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/partitive-in-grammar-1691587 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Partitives in Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/partitive-in-grammar-1691587 (accessed June 10, 2023).