Section 4: Determiners

Determiners are structure-class words that precede and modify nouns both grammatically and lexically. Sometimes, nouns need determiners and sometimes they don’t:

  • You let the cat out of the bag! (The definite article the is a determiner.)
  • Your cats are driving me crazy! (The possessive your functions as a determiner.)
  • Cats will always eat some tuna. (The indefinite some functions as a determiner for tuna, but cats does not require a determiner.)

Several different kinds of structure-class words can function as determiners. The prototypical members of the set are the articles: a/an and the. Any word that can stand in for a/an or the can be classified as a determiner.

English has two subclasses of the article structure class. The choice of which article to use depends on what knowledge is shared by the speaker or writer and hearer or reader.

definite article: the

The speaker or writer uses the when the hearer or reader knows specifically what is being talked about.

  • Example: The dog dug up the bushes. A particular dog that both speaker and hearer know did the digging.

indefinite article: a/an

The speaker or writer uses a/an when it cannot be assumed that the hearer or readers has specific knowledge of what is being talked about.

  • Example: A dog dug up the bushes. Some dog that the speaker and hearer do not know did the digging.

English has four demonstrativesthis, that, these, and those. Just as with the definite article the, demonstratives are used when the speaker/writer and hearer/reader share specific knowledge of what is being talked about.

  • Please wash this car.
  • Please wash that car.
  • Please wash these cars.
  • Please wash those cars.

All these sentences refer to one or several specific cars.

Possessives can serve the function of either determiner or pronoun. When acting as a determiner, possessives precede a noun: 

  • my house (1st-person singular)
  • our coursework (1st-person plural)
  • your yard (2nd-person singular and plural)
  • his/her/its hair (3rd-person singular)
  • their business (3rd-person plural)

Possessive nouns (those nouns with the possessive inflection) are also considered a possessive determiner when followed by another noun:

  • the scholarship’s due date
  • the travel mug’s handle

This is important to remember when analyzing for determiners.

Like definite articles, indefinites are used to refer to nonspecific nouns. They include words such as some, any, no, every, other, another, many, more, both, several, and each. The following sentences do not refer to any specific car or cars:

  • Please wash some cars.
  • Please wash other cars.
  • Please wash each car.
  • Please wash many cars.

Cardinal numbers can act as determiners when they precede a noun:

  • one hedgehog
  • two wheelbarrows
  • two hundred applications
Ordinal numbers can combine with articles to act as determiners:
  • the first day
  • a second chance
  • the last man standing

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:


For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following sentence from The Brothers Karamazov for determiners.

He completely abandoned that child of his first marriage, not from malice, nor because of some matrimonial grievances, but simply because he forgot him.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the DETERMINER SAMPLES ANALYSES page.