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 quantifier 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 following is a rough classification of determiners used in English, including both words and phrases:
Definite determiners, which imply that the referent of the resulting noun phrase is defined specifically:
- The definite article the.
- The demonstratives this and that, with respective plural forms these and those.
- Possessives, including those corresponding to pronouns – my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose – and the Saxon genitives formed from other nouns, pronouns and noun phrases (one's, everybody's, Mary's, a boy's, the man we saw yesterday's). These can be made more emphatic with the addition of own or very own.
- Interrogatives which, what (these can be followed by -ever for emphasis).
- Relative determiners: which (quite formal and archaic, as in He acquired two dogs and three cats, which animals were then...); also whichever and whatever (which are of the type that form clauses with no antecedent: I'll take whatever money they've got).
- The indefinite article a or an (the latter is used when followed by a vowel sound).
- The word some, pronounced [s(ə)m], used as an equivalent of the indefinite article with plural and non-count nouns. (e.g.) I have some money in the bank
- The strong form of some, pronounced [sʌm], as in Some people prefer dry wine; this can also be used with singular count nouns (There's some man at the door). For words such as certain and other see below.
- The word any, often used in negative and interrogative contexts in place of the article-equivalent some (and sometimes also with singular count nouns). In interrogative sentences, some is used when the expected answer is positive [Can I have some coffee?] whereas any is used when the response is uncertain [Did you bring any of the papers I'd asked?]. It can also be used to express alternative (see below).
Quantifiers, which quantify a noun:
- Basic words indicating a large or small quantity: much/many, little/few, and their comparative and superlative forms more, most, less/fewer, least/fewest. Where two forms are given, the first is used with non-count nouns and the second with count nouns (although in colloquial English less and least are frequently also used with count nouns). The basic forms can be modified with adverbs, especially very, too and so (and not can also be added). Note that unmodified much is quite rarely used in affirmative statements in colloquial English.
- Phrases expressing similar meanings to the above: a lot of, lots of, plenty of, a great deal of, tons of, etc. Many such phrases can alternatively be analyzed as nouns followed by a preposition, but their treatment as phrasal determiners is supported by the fact that the resulting noun phrase takes the number of the following noun, not the noun in the phrase (a lot of people would take a plural verb, even though lot is singular).
- Words and phrases expressing some unspecified or probably quite small amount: a few/a little (learners often confuse these with few/little), several, a couple of, a bit of, a number of etc.
- Cardinal numbers: zero (quite rare as determiner), one, two, etc. In some analyses, these may not be treated as determiners.
- Other phrases expressing precise quantity: a pair of, five litres of, etc.
- Words and phrases expressing multiples or fractions: half, half of, double, twice, three times, twice as much, etc. Those like double and half (without of) are generally used in combination with definite determiners (see below).
- Words expressing maximum, sufficient or zero quantity: all, both, enough, sufficient, no.
- Note that many of these quantifiers can be modified by adverbs and adverbial phrases such as almost, over, more than, less than, when the meaning is appropriate.
Words that enumerate over a group or class, or indicate alternatives:
- each, every (note that every can be modified by adverbs such as almost and practically, whereas each generally cannot. However, also note every other, which refers to each second member in a series.)
- any (as in any dream will do; see also under indefinite determiners above), either, neither
- The words you and we/us, in phrases like we teachers; you guys can be analysed as determiners.
- "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".
"We, the undersigned, . . ., "
All we, the undersigned, . . ."
- The words such and exclamative what (these are followed by an indefinite article when used with a singular noun, as in such a treat, what a disaster!)
- Noun phrases used as determiners, such as this colour, what size and how many (as in I like this colour furniture; What size shoes do you take?; How many candles are there?)
- Words such as same, other, certain, different, only, which serve a determining function, but are grammatically more likely to be classed simply as adjectives, in that they generally require another determiner to complete the phrase (although they still come before other adjectives). Note that the indefinite article in combination with other is written as the single word another.