Determiners form a closed class

Unlike open classes (such as lexical verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs), the membership of a closed class of words is fixed. Consequently, it is not generally possible to add new words to the class. Determiners form such a closed class (as do auxiliary verbs, numerals, pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions).

Determiners are used to determine what is being referred to in an utterance. There are two types of determiner: (1) identifiers, and (2) quantifiers.

Identifiers

There are four types of identifier:

  1. indefinite article
  2. definite article
  3. possessives
  4. demonstratives

Examples of each are provided below.

Indefinite article

There are just two morphemes in this category, a and an, e.g.

Jordan has a ball

an apple fell on Isaac’s head

Robert is eating an orange

The indefinite article a is generally used before words that begin with a consonant (e.g. a ball, a sock, a clock) whereas the indefinite article an is generally used before words that begin with a vowel (e.g. an octopus, an agent, an elf).

Definite article

There is only one definite article in English, the, e.g.

throw me the ball

the car is terrific

he spoke in the corridor

The difference between the indefinite and definite articles lies in how specific the article is. The indefinite article is used to refer to one of any number of similar items, e.g. a ball refers to just any one ball from the many available balls. The definite article, in contrast, is more specific as it clearly indicates a special item, e.g. the ball identifies the particular ball selected from the many available balls.

Possessives

These identifiers serve to indicate ownership and include my, your, his, her, its, our and their. They are summarized in terms of person and number in Table 1.

number

person

1st

(speaker)

2nd

(addressee)

3rd

(other)

singular

my

your

his, her, its

plural

our

your

their

Table 1. Possessive identifiers

Examples of the use of possessive identifiers include the following.

it is my ball

where are your notes?

that’s her car

Possessive determiners such as these are also known as possessive adjectives (Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad and Finegan, 1999:270-272).

Demonstratives

There are four demonstrative identifiers, this, that, these and those. Demonstratives are used to indicate the proximity of items. A proximate item (i.e. one that is close by) is referred to by using the demonstrative this, e.g. this ball in my hand. More than one proximate item is referred to using these, e.g. these balls in my hand. A single non-proximate item (i.e. one that is not close by) is referred to by using that, e.g. that ball over there. More than one non-proximate item is referred to by using those, e.g. those balls over there. This relationship between distance and number is summarized diagrammatically in Table 2.

number

proximate

non-proximate

singular

this

that

plural

these

those

Table 2. Demonstrative identifiers.

Here are some examples of the use of demonstratives.

this plant needs watering

it fell on that house

these boots were made for walking

Quantifiers

Quantifiers are used to make reference to indefinite quantities, e.g. several, few, a little, many. Examples include the following.

I have several jazz albums

the Chief Executive has many complaints to make

a little sympathy always helps

References

Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S. and Finegan, E. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English Harlow: Longman.