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Determiner Dilemmas: Read This Before You Write Another Word

In elementary school, your teacher seems all-knowing as she teaches you the basics of grammar. You feel secure in her knowledge, though perhaps a bit bored, as you learn the fundamentals of the English language. 

It isn’t until college that you begin to see the cracks in the foundation and learn that the fundamentals differ from one textbook to another. Even words seem to have different meanings, you find, when you borrow your roommate’s dictionary. 
Is this a new Mandela Effect? Was your teacher wrong?

Probably not. And definitely not. That’s because there’s no such thing as absolute English. Most linguists agree on most of the rules of grammar, however, so while students may take different paths, we ultimately arrive in the same place.

For example, get your hands on a reference grammar (fun fact: books that teach grammar are called grammars) and try answering the question what is a determiner in grammar? When you flip to the index, you might find a listing that points the way. It’s just as likely, though, that you won’t find anything at all between the entries for dependent clause and Dewey decimal system.

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If you learned a language with a grammar that skips this entry, you’re probably wondering: What are determiners? Do I need to know them? The good news is you already know them, though by a different name.

No matter what you call them, they can be at the root of some tricky usage dilemmas. That’s why we created this guide and included their alternate names and distinctions. Keep reading for determiner examples, definitions, and their alter-egos.

What is a Determiner?

If your English education didn’t include an explicit determiner definition, you likely learned about them indirectly alongside adjectives because they function similarly to modify nouns and noun phrases. Where adjectives expand the meaning of a term, however, the determiners of grammar, also referred to as determinatives, introduce and limit them. Click to read more about their types and function in a sentence.

Determinatives are a closed class of words, meaning there is a finite number of them in the language. Adjectives, however, are an open class that expands to include new words. Another critical difference is that adjectives are gradable. Something can be great, greater, or even greatest. It cannot, however, be that-er or that-ist.

Keep reading for a breakdown of the types and uses of these misunderstood structure words. When you’re done, don’t forget to upload your paper to check for errors using our grammar and spell check.

Definite and Indefinite Articles

Definite and indefinite articles account for the three most frequently used words in the determiner family. These are the words a, an, and the.

Indefinite Articles

A and an, the indefinite articles, are used with non-specific singular count nouns. They indicate that the noun or phrase that follows is general:

  • Mary had a little lamb.

  • Mary’s lamb was deemed an unnecessary distraction at school.

Definite Articles

The is a definite article (the only definite article) and accompanies specific singular count nouns, narrowing the meaning of the word it precedes to a particular person, place, thing, or idea:

  • Everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.
  • The City Council’s decision to ban farm animals in class met unexpected resistance.

For more information on indefinite and definite articles and the use of determiners, check out this informative reference page.

Demonstrative Determiners

A demonstrative clarifies the identity of a person, place, thing, or idea. There are only four words in this category, yet they can be further categorized in two distinct ways.

Teachers and textbooks may refer to these words by their aliases: demonstrative pronouns and demonstrative adjectives. The way they function in a sentence clarifies the difference.

A demonstrative pronoun clarifies the meaning of its antecedent. Demonstrative adjectives, however, are included on the determiners list because they explain the word they precede.

Singular and Plural

This and that are the singular demonstratives and introduce singular and noncount words. These and those, the plural demonstratives, precede plural and countable terms.

Our grammar checker will help you identify mismatched demonstratives when you upload your paper. In addition, our citing service can help you generate your APA format citations in addition to other popular styles.

Near and Far

The two near demonstratives, this and these, introduce words that are physically close to the speaker.

  • This lamb is a nuisance, plain and simple.
  • These rules are necessary to prevent another lamb uprising.

The far demonstratives are that and those. Far demonstratives are typically used when the distance between the item and the speaker is greater.

  • That lamb over there is plotting to overthrow this entire council.
  • Those lambs on the hill look suspicious, as well.

The Distributive Determiner and Its Many Masks

This type of determiner refers to individual items or members of a group. In your quest to define determiner, you’ll find that this class frequently overlaps with other categories.

Indefinite Pronouns

Some examples of words in this category are each, every, either, neither, several, some, much, any, and all. These may also be called pre-determiners and quantifiers.

  • Several readers think the lamb joke has run its course.
  • Some readers have felt this way since the beginning.
  • Neither of these groups will be pleased with what’s coming next.

Relative and Interrogative Pronouns

Again, there is overlap between the words in these two categories, with the same words falling into each depending on their use. Relative pronouns that, which, and whose introduce subordinate clauses, while interrogative pronouns what, which, and whose introduce questions. When these words come before a head noun, they meet the determiners definition.

  • Whose lamb will we meet in battle first?
  • What fool will face down this flock?

Post Determiner Examples

These can include cardinal and ordinal numbers that come between an article, demonstrative, distributive, or possessive word and the noun it modifies.

  • Many of my twenty-four lambs are leading the lamb uprising.

Possessive Determiners

The overlap between pronouns and the list of determiners can be confusing when you’re trying to identify parts of speech. A simple trick to determine a word’s function is trying to replace it with a noun. If a word is functioning as a determinative, it cannot be replaced by a noun.

In the following example, you can replace this with grammar, and the meaning of the sentence remains clear.

  • This is a riveting subject.
  • Grammar is a riveting subject.

This serves a determinative function in the following example, and a noun cannot replace it.

  • This subject is riveting.
  • Grammar subject is riveting.

The final determiner category is possessive, and there is overlap here with possessive pronouns. These words are my, your, his, her, its, our, and their. Unlike the pronouns mine, yours, hers, ours, and theirs, determinatives must be used with a noun and cannot replace nouns or noun phrase.

In the following example, my is used as a determinative in the first sentence, as it comes before the noun and cannot function without it. In the second sentence, the word mine can replace the phrase my lamb and is operating as a pronoun.

  • The lamb you’re senselessly targeting is my lamb.
  • The lamb you’re senselessly targeting is mine.

Possessive nouns can serve this same function when they introduce and clarify a head noun in this way.

  • Mary’s lamb ate the books.
  • Jane’s books were spared in the carnage.