In my last post I talked about noun phrases. This post is about determiners—the words that come at the beginning of a noun phrase. Determiners indicate whether the noun phrase is general or specific. When the determiner is specific it indicates exactly which particular noun we are talking about.
Determiners are always used in front of a noun.
Perhaps the English language’s most common determiners are the definite and indefinite articles. These are:
Definite article = the
Indefinite article = a/an
Articles are easy for native English speakers. We just know which ones to use. For non-native speakers, particularly those whose own language doesn’t use articles, life is a little more difficult. The good thing is that in most cases people will still understand you if you get them wrong.
When we aren’t referring to a specific person or thing, we use the indefinite article. When we are referring to a specific item, one that we know about, then it’s the definite article.
- I’ve got a car. (There are many cars and I have one.)
- I’m taking the car for a drive tomorrow. (This time I’m talking about my car.)
- Can I ask a question? (There are many different questions to choose from and you want to ask one.)
- Could you repeat the question please? (This time it’s the question that you asked. You know which question you want the person to repeat.)
- A car drove by. (It doesn’t matter which car; it was just some random car.)
- The car drove by. (This sentence is about a car we know about; a specific car.)
Some other common determiners include words that we call possessives, demonstratives and quantifiers.
Possessive determiners include my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose. These modify the noun that follows to show possession or ownership: my book, his cat, whose car?
Demonstrative determiners include this, that, these, those (there are a couple more which we rarely use—yon and yonder). They demonstrate which one you are talking about.
- This book is really great. (The book that is right here.)
- That book is really great. (The one over there, or the one we are talking about which isn’t physically here.)
- These books belong to the school. (These books are here.)
- Those books belong to the school. (This is referring to the books that are over there, or that we are talking about which aren’t physically here.)
Quantitative determiners include all, many, both, either, every, much, more, most, little, less, least, few, fewer, fewest, three, four etc. They say how many of something you are talking about.
Pages have been written on determiners. Pages have been written about when we use different ones. Pages have been written about when we should and shouldn’t use one or the other. For such tiny words they are ridiculously complex and regularly cause confusion, especially with non-native speakers. I suggest that you don’t get too hung up about them unless you’re writing an important document (for example, letter to customer, annual report, etc.). If you are writing an important or formal document, ask someone to read through it before you submit it. If you’re writing an email to your best mate, they’ll most probably understand what you mean even if you use the wrong word. If not, they’ll usually check.