What Is a Determiner? | Definition, Types & Examples

A determiner is a word that modifies, describes, or introduces a noun. Determiners can be used to clarify what a noun refers to (e.g., your car) and to indicate quantity or number (e.g., four wheels).

Examples: Determiners in a sentence
That cup is chipped.

Priya is taking her first steps.

The festival has been postponed due to bad weather.

How are determiners used in sentences?

A determiner modifies or describes a noun by clarifying what it refers to. Determiners do this by indicating qualities such as possession, relative position, and quantity. In a noun phrase, determiners come before nouns.

Examples: Determiners and nouns
One person is missing from the group.

I’ve been stung by a wasp.

Determiners vs. adjectives

Many kinds of determiners are traditionally classified as adjectives, and they may still be classified that way now, depending on the source you consult. But there are significant differences in how determiners and adjectives actually function.

While both can be used to modify a noun, only an adjective can modify a pronoun (e.g., he’s sad). And unlike adjectives, determiners are often considered essential to the sentences they’re a part of and can’t be removed.

Examples: Determiners vs. adjectives
  • Calvin cycled his blue bike home from work.
  • Calvin cycled his bike home from work.
  • Calvin cycled bike home from work.
Tip
If a noun is preceded by both a determiner and an adjective, the determiner will always occur first (e.g., Siya is proud of her new job).

Definite and indefinite articles

Articles are sometimes classed as their own part of speech, but they are also considered a type of determiner.

The definite article the is used to refer to a specific noun (i.e., one that is unique or known).

Examples: Definite article in a sentence
The moon looks beautiful tonight.

Can I borrow the book on the table?

The indefinite articles a and an are used to refer to a general or unspecific version of a noun. Which indefinite article you use depends on the pronunciation of the word that follows.

  • A is used before words that begin with a consonant sound (e.g., a clown).
  • An is used before words that begin with a vowel sound (e.g., an arrow).
Examples: Indefinite articles in a sentence
Jesse ate an apple and an orange.

Would you like a free sample?

Indefinite articles can also be used to refer to something for the first time. Once a noun has been introduced, the definite article should then be used, as it refers to a previously mentioned noun.

Example: Indefinite and definite articles
An elephant approached. The elephant was large and gray.
Note
While the definite article the can be used with all countable and uncountable nouns, the indefinite articles a and an can only be used with singular countable nouns.

  • The rain
  • A rain
  • The raindrop
  • A raindrop

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Demonstrative determiners

Demonstrative determiners (also called demonstrative adjectives or simply demonstratives) are used to indicate relative positions of a noun. The demonstrative determiners are:

  • “This” (the singular “near” demonstrative)
  • “These” (the plural “near” demonstrative)
  • “That” (the singular “far” demonstrative)
  • “Those” (the plural “far” demonstrative)
Examples: Demonstrative determiners indicating position
I don’t want to sit at this table. I want that table near the window.

These people are not to blame. Those people over there started the fight.

They can also be used to distinguish between more recent time (this and these) and more distant time (that and those).

Examples: Demonstrative determiners indicating time
This winter is a lot milder than that winter.

We were very close in those days, but we rarely see each other these days.

Note
Demonstrative determiners are identical in form to their equivalent demonstrative pronouns. The difference is that demonstrative pronouns stand on their own rather than modifying a noun.

For example, in the sentence “I don’t want this,” “this” functions as a demonstrative pronoun.

Possessive determiners

A possessive determiner (also called a possessive adjective) is used to describe ownership or possession. The possessive determiners are my, your, his, her, its, our and their.

They are closely related to personal pronouns but not classed as pronouns themselves. They differ grammatically from possessive pronouns (mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, and theirs), which stand alone rather than modifying nouns (e.g., “Yours is better”).

Example: Possessive determiner in a sentence
Penelope brought her cat to the vet.

The tree is shedding its leaves.

Note
While the possessive forms of nouns typically end with an ’s (e.g., Dave’s bedroom), possessive determiners do not use an apostrophe. As a result of this, confusion sometimes occurs between its and it’s, whose and who’s, and there, their, and they’re.

Numbers

Both cardinal numbers (one, two, three, etc.) and ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.) can be used as determiners.

Cardinal numbers are used to indicate the quantity of people or things. They typically follow other determiners in a sentence (e.g., my one chance).

Examples: Cardinal numbers as determiners
I’m close with my four siblings.

Ordinal numbers are used to specify the order of nouns in a series. They follow other determiners in a sentence (e.g., your sixth birthday).

Examples: Ordinal numbers as determiners
I think the third man in the lineup is the thief.

Distributive determiners

Distributive determiners (also called distributive adjectives) are used to refer to a group or to individual people or objects within a group. The distributive determiners are all, each, every, both, half, either, and neither.

Examples: Distributive determiners in a sentence
Each employee was given a raise.

Half of the team didn’t show up to practice.

Neither Lina nor John has met the new neighbors.

Interrogative determiners

An interrogative determiner (also called an interrogative adjective) modifies a noun or pronoun in a direct or indirect question. The interrogative determiners are what, which, and whose.

These words can also function as pronouns instead of determiners when used in place of a noun (e.g., “Which do you like?”). And when they are used as determiners outside the context of a question, they are called “relative determiners.”

Example: Interrogative determiner in a sentence
What height is the Empire State Building?

Whose turn is it to wash the dishes?

I wonder which hand he broke

Note
Although what and which are often used interchangeably in questions, they don’t have the same meaning.

  • What is usually used to ask a question when there is a wide range of options or the options are unknown.
  • Which is used when the number of options is more limited or the options are known.

Quantifiers

Quantifiers (also called indefinite adjectives) indicate the quantity of a noun. They include all, any, few, less, little, many, much, no, several, and some. They also include the cardinal numbers (one, two, three, etc.).

Examples: Quantifiers in a sentence
There are already several people waiting for a table at this restaurant.

Some students in the class are refusing to do their homework.

Determiners of difference

Other and another are the determiners of difference.

Other is used to mean “additional” or “different types of.” It’s used with plural countable nouns (e.g., doors) and all uncountable nouns (e.g., knowledge).

Examples: Other in a sentence
Other shoes might match your outfit better.

Do we have any other fruit?

Another is used to mean “one more” or “a different one.” It’s only used with singular countable nouns (e.g., fork).

Example: Another in a sentence
Can I have another cup of tea?

Frequently asked questions

Are numbers adjectives?

Cardinal numbers (e.g., one, two, three) can be placed before a noun to indicate quantity (e.g., one apple). While these are sometimes referred to as “numeral adjectives,” they are more accurately categorized as determiners or quantifiers.

What is an indefinite article?

The indefinite articles a and an are used to refer to a general or unspecified version of a noun (e.g., a house). Which indefinite article you use depends on the pronunciation of the word that follows it.

  • A is used for words that begin with a consonant sound (e.g., a bear).
  • An is used for words that begin with a vowel sound (e.g., an eagle).

Indefinite articles can only be used with singular countable nouns. Like definite articles, they are a type of determiner.

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Eoghan Ryan

Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.