Articles and Other Determiners

Definition

Determiners are those little words that precede and modify nouns. For example:

  • the teacher
  • a college
  • a bit of honey
  • that person
  • those people
  • whatever purpose
  • either way
  • your choice

Sometimes these words will tell the reader or listener whether we’re referring to a specific or general thing (the garage out back; a garage near our house); sometimes they tell how much or how many (lots of trees, several books, a great deal of confusion).

Determiners are said to “mark” nouns, that is to say, you know a determiner will be followed by a noun. Some categories of determiners are limited (there are only three articles, a handful of possessive pronouns, etc.), but the possessive nouns are as limitless as nouns themselves. This limited nature of most determiner categories, however, explains why determiners are grouped apart from adjectives even though both serve a modifying function. We can imagine that the language will never tire of inventing new adjectives; the determiners (except for those possessive nouns), on the other hand, are well established, and this class of words is not going to grow in number. These categories of determiners are as follows:*

Notice that possessive nouns differ from other determiners in that they, themselves, are often accompanied by other determiners: “my mother’s rug,” “the priest’s collar,” “a dog’s life.”

* This categorization of determiners is based on Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln. 4rth Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994.

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Articles

The three articles — a, an, the — are a kind of determiner: they are almost invariably followed by a noun (or something else acting as a noun). The is called the definite article because it usually precedes a specific or previously mentioned noun; a and an are called indefinite articles because they are used to refer to something in a less specific manner (an unspecified count noun).

The is used with specific nouns. The is required when the noun it refers to represents something that is one of a kind:

  • The moon circles the earth.

The is required when the noun it refers to represents something in the abstract:

  • The United States has encouraged the use of the private automobile as opposed to the use of public transit.

The is required when the noun it refers to represents something named earlier in the text.

We use a before singular count-nouns that begin with consonants (a cow, a barn, a sheep); we use an before singular count-nouns that begin with vowels or vowel-like sounds (an apple, an urban blight, an open door). Words that begin with an h sound often require an a (as in a horse, a history book, a hotel), but if an h-word begins with an actual vowel sound, use an an (as in an hour, an honour). We would say a useful device and a union matter because the u of those words actually sounds like yoo (as opposed, say, to the u of an ugly incident). The same is true of a European and a Euro (because of that consonantal yoo sound). We would say a once-in-a-lifetime experience or a one-time hero because the words once and one begin with a w sound.

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First and subsequent reference:

When we first refer to something in written text, we often use an indefinite article. In a subsequent reference, however, we will use the definite article:

  • “I’d like a glass of orange juice, please,” John said.
  • “I put the glass of juice on the counter already,” Sheila replied.

Exception:

When a modifier appears between the article and the noun, the subsequent article will continue to be indefinite:

  • “I’d like a big glass of orange juice, please,” John said.
  • “I put a big glass of juice on the counter already,” Sheila replied.

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Generic reference:

We can refer to something in a generic way by using any of the three articles. We can do the same thing by omitting the article altogether.

  • A beagle makes a great hunting dog and family companion.
  • An airedale is sometimes a rather skittish animal.
  • The golden retriever is a marvelous pet for children.
  • Irish setters are not the highly intelligent animals they used to be.

The difference between the generic indefinite pronoun and the normal indefinite pronoun is that the latter refers to any of that class (“I want to buy a beagle, and any old beagle will do.”), whereas the former (see beagle sentence) refers to all members of that class.

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Proper nouns:

We use the definite article with certain kinds of proper nouns:

  • Geographical places: the Sea of Japan, the West, the Rockies, the Sahara
  • Pluralized names (geographic, family, teams): the Netherlands, the Bahamas, the Johnsons, the Winnipeg Jets
  • Public institutions/facilities/groups: the Supreme Court, the Sheraton, the Presbyterian Church
  • Newspapers: the Ottawa Citizen, the Times
  • Nouns followed by a prepositional phrase beginning with “of”: the leader of the gang, the president of our club

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Abstract nouns:

Abstract nouns—the names of things that are not tangible—are sometimes used with articles, sometimes not:

  • The storm upset my peace of mind. He was missing just one thing: peace of mind.
  • Injustice was widespread within the judicial system itself. He implored the judge to correct the injustice.
  • Her body was racked with grief. It was a grief she had never felt before.

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Zero articles:

Several kinds of nouns never use articles. We do not use articles with the names of languages (“He was learning Chinese.” [But when the word Chinese refers to the people, the definite article might come into play: “The Chinese are hoping to get the next Olympics.”]), the names of sports (“She plays badminton and basketball.”), and academic subjects (“She’s taking economics and math. Her major is Religious Studies.”)

When they are generic, non-count nouns and sometimes plural count-nouns are used without articles. “We like wine with our dinner. We adore Baroque music. We use roses for many purposes.” But if an “of” phrase comes after the noun, we use an article: “We adore the music of the Baroque.” Also, when a generic noun is used without an article and then referred to in a subsequent reference, it will have become specific and will require a definite article: “The Data Center installed computers in the Learning Center this summer. The computers, unfortunately, don’t work.”

Common count nouns are used without articles in certain special situations:

Idiomatic Expressions

using be and go

  • We’ll go by train. (as opposed to “We’ll take the train.)
  • He must be in school.

with seasons

  • In spring, we like to clean the house.

with institutions

  • He’s in church/college/jail/class.

with meals

  • Breakfast was delicious.
  • He’s preparing dinner by himself.

with diseases

  • He’s dying of pneumonia.
  • Appendicitis nearly killed him.
  • She has cancer. (You will sometimes hear “the measles,” “the mumps,” but these, too, can go without articles.)

with time of day

  • We traveled mostly by night.
  • We’ll be there around midnight.

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Principles of Choosing Articles and Other Determiners

Since determiners are noun-markers (they are always followed by a noun or noun phrase) it is important to know which ones require the use of singular or plural count nouns, or non-count nouns. In the table below zero article means either that no article would be appropriate with that kind of noun or that that kind of noun can be used without an article.

A

AN

Use with…

  • Singular count nouns beginning with non-vowel sounds

Examples…

  • a bottle
  • a history book
  • a UFO
  • a one-time event
  • a uniform
  • a union
  • a European
Use with…

  • Singular count nouns beginning with vowel sounds

Examples…

  • an apple
  • an easel
  • an earful
  • an honor
  • an hour
  • an X-ray
  • an FBI agent
  • an SAT score

THE

ZERO ARTICLE

Use with…

  • Singular and plural count nouns
  • Non-count nouns

Examples…

  • all the students
  • half the faculty
  • both the students
  • twice the trouble
  • one-third the time
Use with…

  • Plural count nouns
  • Non-count nouns

Examples…

  • Sticks and stones will break my bones.
  • We moved furniture today.

THIS/THAT

THESE/THOSE

Use with…

  • Singular count nouns
  • Non-count nouns

Examples…

  • this dog
  • that bottle
  • this furniture
  • that coffee
Use with…

  • Plural count nouns

Examples…

  • these dogs
  • those people
  • those silly Englishmen

EACH/EVERY

EITHER/NEITHER

Use with…

  • Singular count nouns

Examples…

  • each bottle
  • each stick
  • every person
  • every nephew
  • every war
  • each event
Use with…

  • Singular count nouns

Examples…

  • Either hat is fine.
  • Neither pen seems to work.

MUCH

ENOUGH

Use with…

  • Non-count nouns

Examples…

  • too much furniture
  • much warmth
  • much wine
Use with…

  • Plural count nouns
  • Non-count nouns

Examples…

  • That’s enough bottles.
  • We have enough furniture.
  • We have had trouble enough

WHICH/WHAT

POSSESSIVES

Use with…

  • Singular and plural count nouns
  • Non-count nouns

Examples…

  • Which bottle should I use?
  • What experience do you have in mind?
  • Fingerprints? What fingerprints?
Use with…

  • Singular and plural count nouns
  • Non-count nouns

Examples…

  • my car
  • your furniture
  • our car
  • their experience
  • her wine
  • my books
  • his pencils

ANY/SOME (stressed)

ANY/SOME (unstressed)

Use with…

  • Singular and plural count nouns
  • Non-count nouns

Examples…

  • Isn’t there any warmth in this house?
  • What’s some car!
  • Aren’t there any new houses here?
Use with…

  • Plural count nouns
  • Non-count nouns

Examples…

  • Gather some sticks for the fire.
  • Their house didn’t have any furniture.

Notice that there is a difference between a “stressed” some or any and an “unstressed” some or any. Consider the words in ALL CAPS as shouted words and you will hear the difference between these two:

  • That is SOME car you’ve got there!
  • I don’t want to hear ANY excuse!

As opposed to. . .

  • We have some cars left in the lot.
  • Are there any chairs in the living room?

In terms of the words they usually modify, the unstressed some and any do not modify singular count nouns.

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Exercises

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