Grammarbites part 10 – determiners

Part 1 – introduction

Part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 9 – Latin, Greek, French, Norse and English words

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 10 – determiners

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 7 – pronunciation – the basic sounds of English

Part 4 – pronunciation – consonant clusters

A determiner goes before a noun to make a basic noun phrase, usually giving information about which one(s), whose, how many and how much? The most basic are a, which can be used with any singular countable noun, and the, which can be used with any noun: a/the pizza tastes good (singular countable), (-)/the pizzas taste good (plural countable), (-)/the pizza tastes good (uncountable). 

Pronouns can replace noun phrases, usually giving information about who or what? The most basic are I~me, you, she~her, he~him, it, we~us and they~them. Any singular and most uncountable noun phrases can become she, he or it, and any plural and a few uncountable noun phrases can become they: it tastes good, they taste good.

Determiners cannot be used by themselves: (x) a/the tastes good or (x) the taste good. Pronouns cannot be used with determiners or with the noun they replace: (x) a it tastes good, (x) the they taste good, (x) it pizza tastes good, (x) they pizzas taste good.

Other similar words can function as a determiner or pronoun: this/that (pizza) tastes good, these/those (pizzas) taste good.

There are also pairs of words which are obviously related, but one is used as a determiner and the other as a pronoun: my/your/her/our/their pizza(s) taste(s) good and mine/yours/hers/ours/theirs taste(s) good.

Note his (pizza) tastes good (no change), and its pizzas taste good and (x) its taste good (not possible).

A, the, this, that, these and those give information about which one(s)? My, your … and mine, yours … give information about whose?

Other words giving information about which one(s)? include other (determiner only), another, the other (determiner or pronoun) and others (pronoun only).

The other main patterns giving information about whose? are apostrophe-s (N’s) or s-apostrophe (Ns’), which can be used both ways: my grandmother’s (pizza(s)) taste(s) good and my grandparents’ (pizzas(s)) taste(s) good.

Note that this, that, these, those, mine, yours …, N’s and Ns’ can be used by themselves only if it is clear in the context what things are talking about, for example, pizzas.

Words relating to how many? and how much? include many, much, a lot (of), (a) few and (a) little.

Another group of words is based on no, some, any and every:

no, none, no-one, nobody, nothing, nowhere

some, someone, somebody, something, somewhere

any, anywhere, anybody, anything, anywhere

every, everyone, everybody, everything, everywhere

The rules are becoming more complex, as different words are used as determiners or pronouns or both, and with or instead of singular countable, plural countable and uncountable nouns. Countable nouns can, of course, be used with numbers: one (pizza), two (pizzas).

Other words relate to a comparison of how many or how much: more, less, fewer and (not) enough; or a choice of how many or how much: neither, either, both, each and all.

The last main groups ask questions: who?, whose?, what? and which?, or make exclamations: what! such!,  so!

Sometimes, two or three determiners can be used together, in which case the first will be a word like all, both or half, the second a/the, this/that/these/those or my/your etc and the third a number: All my five children eat pizzas.

The most important word is the middle one. All my five children …, All my children …, My five children … and My children … have the same basic meaning, while Children eat pizzas, Five children eat pizzas, All five children eat pizzas and All children eat pizzas have different meanings.

We can also say All of my five children eat pizzas, but of is not a determiner. Similarly, we can say Most of my (five) children …, Some of my (five) children …, One of my (five) children … and None of my (five) children. All is the only word with which of can be omitted. 

We can also say Almost all of my (five) children … (but we may as well say Four of my (five) children …) and Almost none of my (five) children … (but we may as well say One of my (five) children …). This works better with a bigger group: Almost all of the children at my school … or Almost none of the children …. We can also say Not all of the children …, but not (x) Not none …. 

Similarly, many (of) and much (of) can be modified by not, so, very and too (and also some combinations of those four): Not very many of the children …; and a lot (of) by not: Not a lot of the children ….

A/an and the are two (or three) of the most common words in English.

A/an is (or are) called the indefinite article. It signals that I know (or think) that you don’t know which one I am talking about: I want to eat a pizza. There are many pizzas in the world. I want to eat one of them. I may or may not know which one, but I know (or think) that you don’t. (Maybe you do, but I don’t know that.)

The is called the definite article. It signals that I know (or think) that you do know which one I am talking about: I want to eat the pizza. There is one particular pizza which I want to eat, and I know (or think) that you know which one. So how do I know (or why do I think) that? There are basically three ways:

You know already. Maybe we bought the pizza together, or I’ve told you before, either in this conversation or an earlier one, and I expect that you’ve remembered. I say I want to eat the pizza (you know, the one we bought yesterday/the one I told you about in the last sentence/yesterday).

I’m telling you now. I say  I want to eat the pizza I bought yesterday.

There is only one, or one obvious one. You and I are looking in the fridge together. Quite clearly, there is one pizza there. I say I want to eat the pizza (the one right there).

A can be pronounced slightly bigger as /ʌ/ (uh) or slightly smaller as /ə/ (euh), and an can be pronounced slightly bigger as /æn/ or slightly smaller as /ən/, but they need to be there. A is used before a consonant sound and an before a vowel sound: a pizza, a USB drive, an ice-cream, an MP3 file. Remember that USB starts with the consonant sound /j/ and MP3 starts with the vowel sound /ɛ/.

The is pronounced /ðə/ (thĕ) before a consonant and /ði:/ (thē) before a vowel: thĕ pizza, thĕ USB drive, and thē ice-cream and thē MP3 file. If there is a word between the article and the noun, the pronunciation of the article matches that word: a/thĕ USB drive v a/thĕ new USB drive v an/thē old USB drive and an/thē MP3 file v a/thĕ new MP3 file v an/thē old MP3 file.

A/an and the can also be emphasised: A: Did you send me the USB drive/the MP3 file? B: I sent you a (/eɪ/) USB drive/an MP3 file. Was it the right one? A: No, please send me the (thē) USB drive/the (thē) MP3 file.

/ð/ is one of the hardest sounds in English, not only for second language learners, but also for some native speakers. Many speakers use /zə/ and /zi:/ (typical of German or French speakers of English) or even /də/ and /di:/ (typical of native speakers from Ireland or the Caribbean islands) (also this, that, these, those etc).

The weak forms of some (/səm/) and any are often used with plural countable and uncountable nouns in the same way as a with singular countable nouns. Some is used in positive statements and any in negative statements. Questions can be made with some or any.

x I like a pizza.

I like pizza.

I like pizzas.

I want to eat a pizza.

I want to eat some pizza.

or I want to eat pizza.

I want to eat some pizzas.

or I want to eat pizzas.

I don’t want to eat a pizza.

I don’t want to eat any pizza.

or I don’t want to eat pizza.

I don’t want to eat any pizzas.

or I don’t want to eat pizzas.

Do you want to eat a pizza?

Do you want to eat some/any pizza?

or Do you want to eat pizza?

Do you want to eat some/any  pizzas?

or Do you want to eat pizzas?

The strong forms of some (/sʌm/) means “some but not others” or “some but not many/much”: I like some pizzas (but not others), I want to eat some pizza(s) (but not much/many). The strong form of any means “any at all”: I don’t want to eat any pizza (at all).

Some and any can also be used by themselves if the context is clear (I (dont) want to eat some (any)), or followed by a prepositional phrase (I (dont) want to eat some (any) of that pizza/those pizzas). (These two include singular countable nouns.)

Something and anything can be used in some (but not all) of these ways.

I want to eat something.

or I want something to eat.

I don’t want to eat anything.

or I don’t want anything to eat.

Do you want to eat something/anything?

or Do you want something/anything to eat?

Anything is possibly more emphatic: Do you want to eat something? Do you want to eat anything? Do you want to eat anything?

Something and anything usually also include plural countable nouns, but we can say I bought some things to eat (definitely plural) as well as I bought something to eat (singular, uncountable, plural).

Everything is even more restricted, and is almost always emphasised.

I want to eat everything.

I don’t want to eat everything (but I want to eat something).

Do you want to eat everything?

Nothing can be used by itself but sounds awkward and is almost always replaced by not … something/anything. Not … nothing is very awkward.

I want to eat nothing > I don’t want to eat anything.

(?) I don’t want to eat nothing > I want to eat something (but not very much).

Do you want to eat nothing? > Do you want to eat something/anything?

But nothing is natural in There’s nothing to eat = There isn’t anything to eat.

No-one/nobody/nowhere, someone/somebody/somewhere, anyone/anybody/anywhere and everyone/everybody/everywhere work in most of the same ways. These are all grammatically singular: No-one is coming, Someone is coming, Is anyone coming?, Everyone is coming.

This, that, these and those are a sub-group of determiners called demonstratives – they “demonstrate” or “point to” which one(s). This and that are used with singular countable and uncountable nouns, and these and those with plural countable nouns.

This and these mean “near me (the speaker or writer)” and that and those mean “not near me”: This pizza is delicious. These pizzas are delicious. That pizza is delicious. Those pizzas are delicious.

The noun can be omitted if it is clear in the context: This is delicious. These are delicious. That is delicious. Those are delicious. In other words, these words can function as pronouns as well as determiners.

When we are talking or writing about two similar things, there’s not a lot to choose between this and that (or these and those). If we are looking at the menu in a pizza restaurant, I can say (while pointing): You order this/that (one) and I’ll order that/this (one).

That has two other common usages which sometimes occur very close to determiner/pronoun that.

1) That pizza that I ate yesterday was delicious (relative pronoun). We might also say The pizza that I ate, That pizza which I ate or The pizza which I ate.

2) I know that that (pizza) is delicious (subordinator).

Determiner/pronoun that is always pronounced in full (/ðæt/) and can be emphasised. That as a relative pronoun or subordinator is always reduced (/ðət/) and can often be omitted: That pizza I ate yesterday was delicious and I know that (pizza) is delicious.


One thought on “Grammarbites part 10 – determiners

  1. Pingback: Grammarbites part 11 – passive voice | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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