English determiners

An important role in English grammar is played by determiners – words or phrases that precede a noun or noun phrase and serve to express its reference in the context. The most common of these are the definite and indefinite articles, the and a(n). Other determiners in English include demonstratives such as this and that, possessives such as my and the boy's, and quantifiers such as all, many and three.

In many contexts the presence of some determiner is required in order to form a complete noun phrase. However, in some cases complete noun phrases are formed without any determiner (sometimes referred to as "zero determiner" or "zero article"), as in the sentence Apples are fruit. Determiners can also be used in certain combinations, as in my many friends or all the chairs.


The terminology used in accounts of English grammar to refer to determiners is very varied. Sometimes the term is not used at all, and the words classed here as determiners (apart from the articles) are classed as adjectives (but see § Determiners and adjectives below). In the present article a broad view is taken of what constitutes a determiner; it includes the articles and words and phrases that can substitute for them, as well as words and phrases serving as quantifiers. This means that determiners as construed here include words from the determiner class, such as the, this, my, many, etc., as well as nominal possessives (John's, the tall boy's) and other specifying or quantifying phrases such as more than three, almost all, and this size (as in this size shoes).

Note that many words or phrases that serve as determiners can also play the role of pronouns; for example, the word all is a determiner in the sentences All men are equal and I know all the rules, but a pronoun in All's well that ends well. In other cases there is a related but distinct pronoun form; for example the determiners my and no have corresponding pronouns mine and none.

Determiners that consist of phrases rather than single words might be called determiner phrases, although this should probably be avoided as the term is also used to refer to a noun phrase headed by a determiner (see Determiner phrase). An alternative term is phrasal determiners.

Common determiners

The following is a rough classification of determiners used in English, including both words and phrases:

"As all we teachers know . . ."
"Us girls must stick together. " (informal)
These examples can be contrasted with a similar but different use of pronouns in an appositional construction, where the use of other pronouns is also permitted but the pronouns cannot be preceded by the (pre-) determiner "all".[2]
"I/we, the undersigned, . . . , "
"We, the undersigned, . . . , "
but not
  • All we, the undersigned, . . ."

Consult Wiktionary for more information on the meanings and usage of the words listed here. It also contains a fairly complete list of words that can be classed as determiners in English.

Zero determiner

In some contexts a complete noun phrase can exist without any determiner (or with "zero determiner"). The main types of such cases are:

For more information, see English articles.

Combinations of determiners

Determiners can be used in certain combinations. Common examples are listed below:

To specify a quantity within a definite class (as opposed to a definite class of a given quantity), it is often possible to use a quantifier in pronoun form (often identical to the determiner form), followed by of and a definite determiner. For example, three of the mice, few of my enemies, none of these pictures, much of John's information. An alternative construction with possessives is to place of and the pronoun form of the possessive after the noun: few enemies of mine, much information of John's.

As with other parts of speech, it is often possible to connect determiners of the same type with the conjunctions and and or: his and her children, two or three beans.

Determiners and adjectives

In traditional English grammar, determiners were not considered a separate part of speech – most of them would have been classed as adjectives. However there are certain differences between determiners and ordinary adjectives (although the boundary is not always entirely clear).

When determiners and adjectives (or other modifiers) occur in the same noun phrase, the determiner generally comes first: the big book, not *big the book. However there are certain exceptions when the determiner is the indefinite article a(n): that article normally comes after an adjective modified with so, as, too or how. For example:

For more information about theoretical approaches to the status of determiners, see Noun phrase § Noun phrases with and without determiners.


  1. Zweig, Eytan (2005), "Nouns and Adjectives in Numeral NPs" (PDF), Proceedings of NELS, 33
  2. 1 2 Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 374. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0.
  3. Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 421–422. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0.

External links

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