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Articles, Determiners, and Quantifiers


Articles, determiners, and quantifiers are those little words that precede and modify nouns:

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 horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!); sometimes they tell how much or how many (lots of trees, several books, a great deal of confusion). The choice of the proper article or determiner to precede a noun or noun phrase is usually not a problem for writers who have grown up speaking English, nor is it a serious problem for non-native writers whose first language is a romance language such as Spanish. For other writers, though, this can be a considerable obstacle on the way to their mastery of English. In fact, some students from eastern European countries — where their native language has either no articles or an altogether different system of choosing articles and determiners — find that these "little words" can create problems long after every other aspect of English has been mastered.

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: the articles (an, a, the — see below; possessive nouns (Joe's, the priest's, my mother's); possessive pronouns, (his, your, their, whose, etc.); numbers (one, two, etc.); indefinite pronouns (few, more, each, every, either, all, both, some, any, etc.); and demonstrative pronouns. The demonstratives (this, that, these, those, such) are discussed in the section on Demonstrative Pronouns. Notice that the possessive nouns differ from the 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. 4th Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994.

Some Notes on Quantifiers

Like articles, quantifiers are words that precede and modify nouns. They tell us how many or how much. Selecting the correct quantifier depends on your understanding the distinction between Count and Non-Count Nouns. For our purposes, we will choose the count noun trees and the non-count noun dancing:

The following quantifiers will work with count nouns:
      many trees
      a few trees
      few trees
      several trees
      a couple of trees
      none of the trees

The following quantifiers will work with non-count nouns:
      not much dancing
      a little dancing
      little dancing
      a bit of dancing
      a good deal of dancing
      a great deal of dancing
      no dancing

The following quantifiers will work with both count and non-count nouns:
      all of the trees/dancing
      some trees/dancing
      most of the trees/dancing
      enough trees/dancing
      a lot of trees/dancing
      lots of trees/dancing
      plenty of trees/dancing
      a lack of trees/dancing

In formal academic writing, it is usually better to use many and much rather than phrases such as a lot of, lots of and plenty of.

There is an important difference between "a little" and "little" (used with non-count words) and between "a few" and "few" (used with count words). If I say that Tashonda has a little experience in management that means that although Tashonda is no great expert she does have some experience and that experience might well be enough for our purposes. If I say that Tashonda has little experience in management that means that she doesn't have enough experience. If I say that Charlie owns a few books on Latin American literature that means that he has some books — not a lot of books, but probably enough for our purposes. If I say that Charlie owns few books on Latin American literature, that means he doesn't have enough for our purposes and we'd better go to the library.

Unless it is combined with of, the quantifier "much" is reserved for questions and negative statements:

·         Much of the snow has already melted.

·         How much snow fell yesterday?

·         Not much.

Note that the quantifier "most of the" must include the definite article the when it modifies a specific noun, whether it's a count or a non-count noun: "most of the instructors at this college have a doctorate"; "most of the water has evaporated." With a general plural noun, however (when you are not referring to a specific entity), the "of the" is dropped:

·         Most colleges have their own admissions policy.

·         Most students apply to several colleges.

Authority for this last paragraph: The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers by Maxine Hairston and John J. Ruszkiewicz. 4th ed. HarperCollins: New York. 1996. Examples our own.

An indefinite article is sometimes used in conjunction with the quantifier many, thus joining a plural quantifier with a singular noun (which then takes a singular verb):

·         Many a young man has fallen in love with her golden hair.

·         Many an apple has fallen by October.

This construction lends itself to a somewhat literary effect (some would say a stuffy or archaic effect) and is best used sparingly, if at all.



The predeterminers occur prior to other determiners (as you would probably guess from their name). This class of words includes multipliers (double, twice, four/five times . . . .); fractional expressions (one-third, three-quarters, etc.); the words both, half, and all; and intensifiers such as quite, rather, and such.

The multipliers precede plural count and mass nouns and occur with singular count nouns denoting number or amount:

·         This van holds three times the passengers as that sports car.

·         My wife is making double my / twice my salary.

·         This time we added five times the amount of water.

In fractional expressions, we have a similar construction, but here it can be replaced with "of" construction.

·         Charlie finished in one-fourth [of] the time his brother took.

·         Two-fifths of the respondents reported that half the medication was sufficient.

The intensifiers occur in this construction primarily in casual speech and writing and are more common in British English than they are in American English. The intensifier "what" is often found in stylistic fragments: "We visited my brother in his dorm room. What a mess!"

·         This room is rather a mess, isn't it?

·         The ticket-holders made quite a fuss when they couldn't get in.

·         What an idiot he turned out to be.

·         Our vacation was such a grand experience.

Half, both, and all can occur with singular and plural count nouns; half and all can occur with mass nouns. There are also "of constructions" with these words ("all [of] the grain," "half [of] his salary"); the "of construction" is required with personal pronouns ("both of them," "all of it"). The following chart (from Quirk and Greenbaum) nicely describes the uses of these three predeterminers:

To be continued


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