• 3-minute read
  • 27th April 2016

Determiners: What They Are and How to Use Them

We use determiners in front of nouns to show what they refer to. The difference between “a hat” and “my hat,” for instance, is that “my” shows that the hat belongs to me. This makes determiners very important for clear communication, so make sure you know which terms to use in different situations.

Articles (The / A / An)

Articles are the most basic determiners to specify what you’re discussing. They come in two kinds: the definite article (“the”) and the indefinite article (“a” or “an”).

  • The definite article – “the” – is used when we refer to something specific. If I say “I am going to the library,” for example, I have a particular library in mind (not just any library).
  • The indefinite article is used when not referring to a specific entity. If I go looking for “a library,” I’m not searching for a specific library (any library will do).

Possessives (My / Your / His / Her / Its / Our / Their)

A possessive determiner indicates ownership, like with “my hat” above. Other singular determiners include “your,” “his,” “her,” and “its.”

Plural determiners (i.e., determiners used to indicate something belongs to a group) include “our” (“welcome to our party!”), “their” (“I don’t want to go to their party”) and “your” (“I’m glad I went to your party”). Note that “your” can be either singular or plural.

Demonstratives (This / That / These / Those)

Demonstrative determiners usually tell us about the position of something relative to the speaker.

“This” (singular) and “these” (plural) indicate something is close. “That” (singular) and “those” (plural) usually apply when something is far away.

Determiners (This, That, These, Those)
Determiners (This, That, These, Those)

As with “the,” demonstratives are used when we refer to something in particular (e.g., “this cake” and “that cake” both refer to a specific cake, unlike “a cake”).

We also use “this” to refer to something we have just mentioned. This makes it possible to follow on from a preceding sentence without having to re-identify the thing being discussed.

Quantifiers (All / Any / Some / Every)

This category of determiners includes a wide variety of terms relating to quantity, including “all,” “any,” “both,” “either,” “enough,” “a few,” “some,” “every,” and many others.

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Like “a” or “an,” these words do not specify singular things, but nevertheless tell us something about the noun being described, usually to do with the number or quantity being discussed.

In the sentence “I will cuddle every puppy,” for example, “every” shows I’m referring to every single puppy in the room, in the world, or every puppy available.

In “I will cuddle any puppy,” meanwhile, the determiner “any” shows that, while I’m happy to cuddle a puppy, I will not necessarily commit to cuddling all of them. No matter how adorable they are.

Photo by Jonathon Kriz (https://www.flickr.com/photos/27587002@N07/5170590074)
Sorry, little dude. You’ll have to cuddle yourself. [Photo: Jonathon Kriz]

Numbers can also work as quantifiers, telling us exactly how many of something there is:

She has two large dogs at home.

He read 153 books last year.

Numbers only count as quantifiers when they appear before a noun, though.

Proofreading for Grammar

Determiners can be tricky little words to master! But our editors are grammar and spelling experts, helping you to ensure your writing is always error free. Sign up for a free proofreading trial today and find out how our services work.

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