Parts of Speech: The Determiner


Posted by Jake Magnum | September 14, 2017 | Parts of Speech


Determiner definition

Determiners act somewhat like adjectives in that words from both classes precede nouns to help the reader to better understand them. While adjectives describe nouns using words that appeal to the five senses, determiners help the reader determine other aspects of nouns such as their number, definiteness, and proximity.

For example, the word these can be used as a determiner, such as in the short phrase, “these mushrooms.” The simple word these tells the reader a fair amount about the mushrooms in question–specifically, that there are at least two mushrooms (the word this would have been used if there was a single mushroom) and that the mushrooms are nearby (the word those would have been used if the mushrooms were not nearby).

Note that the determiner must agree with its noun. “These mushroom” and “this mushrooms” are both ungrammatical noun phrases.

Determiners almost always precede nouns. They can precede nouns immediately (“these mushrooms”) or they can be separated from nouns by one or more other words (“these large portabello mushrooms”). Determiners are almost always placed at the very beginning of a noun phrase.

Some of the most common determiners are a(n), the, this/that, these/those, each, any, all, none, some, what, which, and who.

Most of these words can also be categorized as pronouns. These words function as pronouns when they are not followed by a noun, and they function as determiners when they are.


Different types of determiners

Different types of determiners tell the reader different things about the nouns which they precede. Below, the most prominent types of determiners are outlined. Other types of determiners which are not discussed here follow rules that are similar to those explained in this post.



An article indicates the definiteness of the noun which it precedes (that is, whether the noun is readily identifiable to the reader). An indefinite article (a or an) tells the reader that the noun being discussed is not a particular one that the reader should be able to identify. The definite article (which is the word the) tells the reader that a specific identifiable entity is being discussed.

When someone says, “I saw a movie last night,” it is not expected that the person who is being spoken to would know which movie is being talked about. The person being spoken to could respond by asking, “What was the movie about?” since it will be known that the movie being asked about is the one that was seen last night.

Sometimes, the is used to refer not to a specific thing, but to a kind of thing in general. This is done when it doesn’t much matter whether the addressee knows which particular thing is being discussed. Examples of this might be, “I don’t like to take the bus,” or “I went to the grocery store.”

The can also be used when the addressee will easily be able to correctly assume what particular thing is being discussed. For example, if someone says, “I’m just about to take the dog for a walk,” it will be assumed that the speaker is talking about his or her own dog.

As a final note, articles–unlike most determiners–can never function as pronouns; they must always be followed by a noun.


Degree determiners

Degree determiners (few, many, little, much) determine the relative number of things being discussed.

Two aspects of degree determiners make them more like adjectives than other determiners. Few and many have comparative (fewer, more) and superlative (fewest, most) forms, which is a characteristic of adjectives but not of other determiners. Also unlike other determiners, degree determiners have the adjective-like ability to have the adverb very placed in front of them, as in, “They have given me very much support.”


Demonstrative determiners

Demonstrative determiners (this, these, that, those) point to the location of a noun. For example, if someone says “I like this book,” they might do so by physically pointing to it with a finger.

As was discussed in Part 2 of this series, these words also commonly function as demonstrative pronouns. This is the case when they are not followed by a noun, such as when someone says, “I like this.”)


Interrogative determiners

Interrogative determiners (what and which) occur before nouns within phrases that ask questions. For example, what is an interrogative determiner in the phrase, “What restaurant would you prefer?”

Remember that it the word which or what must be followed by a noun to be a determiner. Without a noun (for example, “What would you prefer?”) these words are interrogative pronouns.


Relative and free relative determiners

The relative determiner (which) determines something about a noun within a relative clause (a clause which gives additional information about something).

The relative determiner which is very similar to the relative pronoun which. The difference is that, when used as a determiner, which is linked to a following noun. An example of which used as a relative determiner would be, “This sandwich, which I paid $4.99 for, is quite tasty.”

Which is a relative pronoun when it is not followed by a noun or a pronoun that is acting as a subject. Which in “…which I paid…” above is not an example of this because I — not which — is in subject position. “This sandwich, which cost $4.99, is quite tasty,” is an example of which as a relative pronoun since there is no noun that follows it.

A free relative determiner acts just like a relative determiner, but it has no antecedent noun to which it refers (the sandwich was the antecedent in the previous example). There are other free relative determiners besides which. They include: what, whatever, who, whoever, when, and whenever. An example of a sentence that uses a free relative determiner is, “You may choose whatever sandwich you want.”



The final type of determiner on this list are numerals (“one,” “two,” etc.). These determine the exact quantity of the nouns they precede. For example, two is a determiner in, “Jeremy ate two breakfasts this morning.”


Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.