Grammar: Determiners

Determiners are words which come at the beginning of the noun phrase. They tell us whether the noun phrase is specific or general. Determiners are a group of words which include articles (a, the), demonstratives (this, those), possessive adjectives (my, their), numbers (one, two), and other words (any, both) that come before a noun, follow another determiner, or begin a noun phrase.

Determiners include quantifiers, which are words or phrases used before a noun to show its quantity. Examples of quantifiers are: all, many, much, most, one, some, a few, and a lot of, etc.

Determiners and quantifiers are useful in letting us know more about the noun that they refer. For example, this thing identifies something that is close at hand; her wig means the wig belongs to her; another donkey tells of one more donkey; and a few marbles refers to a small number of marble.

The Definite Article

The word “the” is one of the most common words in English. It is our only definite article. Nouns in English are preceded by the definite article when the speaker believes that the listener already knows what he is referring to. The definite article the as a determiner can be used before singular or plural nouns such as people or things, and before countable and uncountable nouns. The speaker may believe this for many different reasons, some of which are listed below.

When to use “the”

General Rules

Use the to refer to something which has already been mentioned.

Examples

  • On Monday, an unarmed man stole $1,000 from the bank. The thief hasn’t been caught yet.
  • I was walking past Benny’s Bakery when I decided to go into the bakery to get some bread.
  • There’s a position available in my team. The job will involve some international travel.

Use the when you assume there is just one of something in that place, even if it has not been mentioned before.

Examples

  • We went on a walk in the forest yesterday.
  • Where is the bathroom?
  • Turn left and go to number 45. Our house is across from the Italian restaurant.
  • My father enjoyed the book you gave him.

Use the in sentences or clauses where you define or identify a particular person or object.

Examples

  • The man who wrote this book is famous.
  • I scratched the red car parked outside.
  • I live in the small house with a blue door.
  • He is the doctor I came to see.

Use the to refer to people or objects that are unique.

Examples

  • The sun rose at 6:17 this morning.
  • You can go anywhere in the world.
  • Clouds drifted across the sky.
  • The president will be speaking on TV tonight.
  • The CEO of Total is coming to our meeting.

Use the before superlatives and ordinal numbers.

Examples

  • This is the highest building in New York.
  • She read the last chapter of her new book first.
  • You are the tallest person in our class.
  • This is the third time I have called you today.

Use the with adjectives, to refer to a whole group of people.

Examples

  • The French enjoy cheese.
  • The elderly require special attention.
  • She has given a lot of money to the poor.

Use the with decades.

Examples

  • He was born in the seventies.
  • This is a painting from the 1820’s.

Use the with clauses introduced by only

Examples

  • This is the only day we’ve had sunshine all week.
  • You are the only person he will listen to.
  • The only tea I like is black tea.

To refer to people or things which we know because they have already been mentioned.

Examples

  • There is a man selling apple at the marketplace. I know the man; he is my uncle.
  • I know there are bats in that cave. I have been to the cave and seen the bats.

To refer to a person or thing when there is only one.

Example

  • She is the maid-servant of my aunt.

Before superlatives, words such as firstonly, etc.

Examples

  • Peacocks have the most beautiful feathers.
  • The first runner up of the sprint game was given a bicycle.

Proper nouns

Use the with names of geographical areas, rivers, mountain ranges, groups of islands, canals, and oceans.

Examples

  • They are traveling in the Arctic.
  • Our ship crossed the Atlantic in 7 days.
  • I will go on a cruise down the Nile.
  • Hiking across the Rocky Mountains would be difficult.

Use the with countries that have plural names

Examples

  • I have never been to the Netherlands.
  • Do you know anyone who lives in the Philippines?

Use the with countries that include the words “republic”, “kingdom”, or “states” in their names.

Examples

  • She is visiting the United States.
  • James is from the Republic of Ireland.

Use the with newspaper names.

Examples

  • I read it in the Guardian.
  • She works for the New York Times.

Use the with the names of famous buildings, works of art, museums, or monuments.

Examples

  • Have you been to the Vietnam Memorial?
  • We went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa.
  • I would like to visit the Eiffel Tower.
  • I saw King Lear at the Globe.

Use the with the names of hotels & restaurants, unless these are named after a person.

Examples

  • They are staying at the Hilton on 6th street.
  • We ate at the Golden Lion.

Use the with the names of families, but not with the names of individuals.

Examples

  • We’re having dinner with the Smiths tonight.
  • The Browns are going to the play with us.

When not to use “the”

Do not use the with names of countries (except for the special cases above).

Examples

  • Germany is an important economic power.
  • He’s just returned from Zimbabwe.

Do not use the with the names of languages.

Examples

  • French is spoken in Tahiti.
  • English uses many words of Latin origin.
  • Indonesian is a relatively new language.

Do not use the with the names of meals.

Examples

  • Lunch is my favorite meal.
  • I like to eat breakfast early.

Do not use the with people’s names.

Examples

  • John is coming over later.
  • Mary Carpenter is my boss.

Do not use the with titles when combined with names.

Examples

  • Prince Charles is Queen Elizabeth’s son.
  • President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

Do not use the after the ‘s possessive case

Examples

  • His brother’s car was stolen.
  • Peter’s house is over there.

Do not use the with professions

Examples

  • Engineering is a well-paid career.
  • He’ll probably study medicine.

Do not use the with names of shops

Examples

  • I’ll get the card at Smith’s.
  • Can you go to Boots for me?

Do not use the with years

Examples

  • 1948 was a wonderful year.
  • He was born in 1995.

Do not use the with uncountable nouns

Examples

  • Rice is an important food in Asia.
  • Milk is often added to tea in England.
  • War is destructive.

Do not use the with the names of individual mountains, lakes and islands

Examples

  • Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in Alaska.
  • She lives near Lake Windermere.
  • Have you visited Long Island?

Do not use the with most names of towns, streets, stations and airports

Examples

  • Victoria Station is in the centre of London.
  • Can you direct me to Bond Street?
  • She lives in Florence.
  • They’re flying into Europe.

Indefinite Articles

In English, the two indefinite articles are a and an. Like other articles, indefinite articles are invariable. You use one or the other, depending on the first letter of the word following the article, for pronunciation reasons. Use a when the next word starts with a consonant, or before words starting in u and eu when they sound like you. Use an when the next word starts with a vowel (a,e,i,o,u) or with a mute h.

Examples

  • a boy
  • an apple
  • a car
  • a helicopter
  • an elephant
  • a big elephant
  • an itchy sweater
  • an ugly duck
  • a european
  • a university
  • a unit
  • an hour
  • an honor

The indefinite article is used to refer to something for the first time or to refer to a particular member of a group or class. Some usage cases and examples are given below.

To refer to someone or things that we know nothing about as they have not been mentioned before, or they are not particular persons or things.

Examples

  • She brought home cat.
  • There was an explosion in a nearby market.

before an uncountable noun.

Examples

  • The two sisters share a liking for cat fish.
  • He has an unusually bad temper.

before an action noun.

Examples

  • She had a quick glance at me, and then looked away.
  • She always has bath that lasts at least an hour.

before a quantity.

Examples

  • He uttered a few annoying words before leaving yesterday.
  • She needs a bit of exercise to reduce her enormous body weight.

before a proper noun such as a person’s name.

Example

  • A Mrs Brown visited you last week.

Use a to refer to something for the first time.

Examples

  • Would you like a drink?
  • I’ve finally got a good job.
  • An elephant and a mouse fell in love.

Naming members of a group

Use a with names of jobs.

Examples

  • John is a doctor.
  • Mary is training to be an engineer.
  • He wants to be a dancer.

Use a with nationalities and religions in the singular.

Examples

  • John is an English man.
  • Kate is a Catholic.

Use a with the names of days of the week when not referring to any particular day.

Examples

  • I was born on a Thursday.
  • Could I come over on a Saturday sometime?

Use a to refer to an example of something.

Examples

  • The mouse had a tiny nose .
  • The elephant had a long trunk .
  • It was a very strange car .

Use a with singular nouns after the words ‘what’ and ‘such’.

Examples

  • What a shame !
  • She’s such a beautiful girl .
  • What a lovely day !

Use a which means ‘one’, refers to a single object or person, or a single unit of measure. In some sentences in which “one” is used instead of the indefinite article is grammatically correct. It will add emphasis to the number, and contrast with other numbers.

Examples

  • I’d like an orange and two lemons please.
  • I’d like one orange and two lemons please.
  • The burglar took a diamond necklace and some valuable paintings.
  • I can think of a hundred reasons not to come.
  • I need a kilogram of sugar.
  • I need one kilogram of sugar.
  • You can’t run a mile in 5 minutes!

Determiners of Difference

The determiners other and another refer to something different, remaining, or additional. They are placed before a noun. The other is treated separately because its usage is slightly different.

Other Plural countable nouns and all uncountable nouns
Another Singular countable nouns
The other Any noun that can take the definite article “the”

Using “Other”

Other can come after the determiners some, any, and no.

Examples

  • Do you have other shoes?
  • There are other jobs you could try.
  • Is there any other bread?
  • I have some other sugar we could use.
  • We have no other ideas.

If used with a plural countable noun and one of these determiners, the noun may be omitted when it is understood from the context. In that case, other becomes plural. This can also happen with other used by itself, but it is less common.

Examples

  • Do you have any others?
  • I know some others who might like to come.
  • There are no others in this box.
  • I know others like vanilla, but I prefer chocolate.
  • She doesn’t have to wear that dress. She has others.

Using “Another”

Another is used with singular countable nouns. For uncountable nouns, another is often used with measure words that are singular.

Examples

  • Have another cookie.
  • Would you like another cup of tea?
  • He has another brother.
  • I don’t have another car.
  • I’ll come by another time.

Using “The Other”

If ‘the other‘ is modifying a plural countable noun, the noun may be omitted when it is understood from the context. In that case, other will become plural.

Examples

  • Where is the other box of cereal?
  • I work on the weekend and go to school on the other days of the week.
  • May I use the other honey for my recipe?
  • I enjoyed the first book but I didn’t read the other books in the series.
  • Have you seen the others?
  • Jim ate two cookies. I ate the others.

Pre-determiners

Pre-determiners are normally placed before an indefinite article + adjective + noun to express an opinion about the noun they modify. Such and what are used to express surprise or other emotions.

Examples

  • What a lovely day!
  • She’s such a beautiful woman.
  • You can’t imagine what an incredible meal I just ate.
  • I’ve had such a good time today!

Rather and quite are commenting words, referring to the degree of a particular quality as expressed by the adjective that modifies the noun. They can express disappointment, pleasure, or other emotions depending on the adjective in question. In British English, rather is used as a pre-determiner. In American English it is only used as an adverb. The examples given below are British English.

Examples

  • It was quite a nice day.
  • He’s had quite a bad accident.
  • It’s rather a small car.
  • I’ve just met rather a nice man.

Demonstratives: this/these, that/those (these and those are plural).

This, that, these and those are called demonstratives. As determiners, this and that appear before singular nouns, and these and those being plurals of this and that respectively come before plural nouns.

Examples:

  • This colour is not among the primary colours.
  • That hill was shaped almost like a human head.
  • These footprints are left by crawling baby.

Nouns need not follow these determiners if the meaning is understood.

Examples:

  • Whose is this?
  • Look at that.
  • Those are mine.

The words – this, that, these, those – besides being determiners, are also used as pronouns. One good way to distinguish between them is determiner, unlike pronoun, comes before nouns.

Determiner Pronoun
This rice is still hot. This is a hot rice.
That lady is beautiful. That is a very beautiful lady.
These apples are bad. These are bad apples.
Those dark clouds are gathering overhead. Those are dark clouds gathering overhead.

Possessives (possessive determiners): my, your, his, her, its, our, their 

Possessive determiners indicate possession and we use them before the nouns.

Examples:

  • Who broke her new plate?
  • Your dog barks all the time
  • His left leg was broken in two places in the accident.
  • She misplaced my pen.
  • Our School has a dinner party next week.

Quantifiers used with countable nouns include a, an, one, each, every, both, a couple of, a few, several, many, a number of, a large number of, and a great number of.

Examples:

  • An evil monster like him has no friends.
  • One page my text book is missing.
  • Every girl should be given a cup of chocolate.
  • Both donkeys are braying at the same time.
  • A couple of people began to dance after eating.
  • I think he is putting too many eggs in one basket.
  • A number of her friends agreed with her that she looked fabulous in her new dress.

Few and a few

Few and a few come before plural countable nouns. Few (without a) conveys a negative meaning of only a small number or hardly any; a few has a positive meaning of having some but enough.

Examples

  • There were a few casualties in the automobile accident. (= Not many died or injured.)
  • Few passers-by stopped to look at my paintings. (= Almost no passers-by were interested.)