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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. 

That’s because there’s no such thing as absolute English. Most linguists agree, however, on most of the rules of grammar. 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 clauses and Dewey decimal system.

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If you learned a language with a grammar that skipped 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, a determiner 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 a determiner, meaning there is a finite number of them in the language. Adjectives, however, are an open class that expands to include new words. Another notable 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 categorized under determiners. Keep track by creating a determiners list as you read along. When you’re done, don’t forget to upload your paper to check for errors using our essay checker.

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.

Easy, right?

Definite Articles

The is a definite article (the only definite article) and accompanies specific 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.

You can also combine the with adjectives to identify large groups of people. An example would be saying ‘the French,’ which is meant to represent the population of France as a whole. Play with the determiner the and see how many other uses and forms you can come up with to add to your determiner definition and list of determiners. The use of determiners is beginning to become more complex. Take note of all the uses and begin to form in your own words what is a determiner.

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. Let’s break them down and continue to see how this group of words helps define determiner.

Teachers and textbooks may refer to the determiner by one of its 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. Take a look at these determiner examples.

Singular and Plural

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

  • All of these cake slices better be gone by the time I leave.
  • This ball is way heavier than that one over there.

Not only does the use of determiners refer to quantity but distance and location as well.

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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.

Now that you understand what demonstratives are, try creating your own determiner examples. You see, the lists of determiners are already overlapping. This is just the beginning. Read further ahead to learn about the distributive determiner and  determiners of grammar.

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. A distributive determiner contains a lot of words that act as quantifiers.

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.

In general, determiners and quantifiers overlap and contain words like enough and a few, as well as even more specific ordinal, cardinal, and percentage words.

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 determiner definition.

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

The word any can be used in the interrogative when someone tries to get a better picture of something undefined or an incomplete quantity. Any is also commonly seen with not to make negative sentences. Add these to your list of determiners, and in no time you’ll be able to form your own determiner definition.

Post-Determiner Examples

Post-determiner examples are probably the easiest to remember. 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.

Post-determiner examples can also be found under demonstrative determiners as well. Falling under distributive determiner is a little tricky, but understanding context and grammar will sure enough guide you to sensible writing. There is a formula when using both a post- and a pre-determiner. The determiner would look like this in any case and can contain both kinds.

Pre-determiner (quantifiers) + main determiner (articles, demonstratives, or possessives) + post-determiner (ordinal, cardinal, & other quantifiers)

This is an easy formula to remember when crafting your own examples. A determiner definition is so rich with ways to form sentences and refer to nouns in everyday life that it can be a little overwhelming making sense of the various parts of speech. Figuring out what is a determiner in grammar will require you to list the different categories. But it’s alright as long as you go back over the lists and examples above while compiling your own list and determiner definition

Still asking what a determiner in grammar is? You’re almost there! Read through the possessive to finish off the use of determiners.

Possessive Determiners

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

In the following determiner examples, you can replace this with grammar, and the meaning of the sentence remains clear. That means it’s a pronoun.

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

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

  • This subject is riveting.
  • Grammar subject is riveting. (Incorrect)

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 phrases.

What is a determiner when it comes to my? In the following possessive determiners 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 therefore 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.

Review Questions

Possessive determiners are used all the time in the English language, but now you can identify them with ease. Now that you’ve completed your journey on discovering what are determiners and all of the groups that they’re made up of, you can answer the review questions. 

Be sure to check back through the guide to make sure you understand what is a determiner in grammar. You’ll find many rules, as well as the determiners list to show you where these words overlap with other categories. But that should make learning what are determiners even easier.

With a friend or by yourself, answer these questions on what is a determiner:

  1. In your own words, define a determiner.
  2. Using words from the determiners list, create determiner examples. What about post-determiner examples? Possessive determiners?
  3. What is a determiner in grammar? Write a sentence using determiners of grammar.



Published March 6th, 2019. Updated June 18th, 2020.

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