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 priests's collar," "a dog's life."
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:
a couple of
none of the
The following quantifiers will work with non-count nouns:
a bit of
a good deal of
a great deal of
The following quantifiers will work with both count and non-count nouns:
all of the
most of the
a lot of
a lack of
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 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.
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:
The three articles — a, an, the — are a kind of adjective. 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). These words are also listed among the noun markers or determiners because they are almost invariably followed by a noun (or something else acting as a noun).
CAUTION! Even after you learn all the principles behind the use of these articles, you will find an abundance of situations where choosing the correct article or choosing whether to use one or not will prove chancy. Icy highways are dangerous. The icy highways are dangerous. And both are correct.
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. (See below..)
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
history book, a
hotel), but if an h-word begins with an actual vowel sound, use an an
(as in an
honor). 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
begin with a w
sound (as if they were spelled wuntz
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary says that we can use an before an h- word that begins with an unstressed syllable. Thus, we might say an hisTORical moment, but we would say a HIStory book. Many writers would call that an affectation and prefer that we say a historical, but apparently, this choice is a matter of personal taste.
For help on using articles with abbreviations and acronyms (a or an FBI agent?), see the section on Abbreviations.
First and subsequent reference: When we first refer to something in written text, we often use an indefinite article to modify it.
A newspaper has an obligation to seek out and tell the truth.
In a subsequent reference to this newspaper, however, we will use the definite article:
There are situations, however, when the newspaper must determine whether the public's safety is jeopardized by knowing the truth.
"I'd like a glass of orange juice, please," John said.
"I put the glass of juice on the counter already," Sheila replied.
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.
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.
Proper nouns: We use the definite article with certain kinds of proper nouns:
- Geographical places: the Sound, the Sea of Japan, the Mississippi, the West, the Smokies, the Sahara (but often not when the main part of the proper noun seems to be modified by an earlier attributive noun or adjective: We went swimming at
the Ocean Park)
- Pluralized names (geographic, family, teams): the Netherlands, the Bahamas, the Hamptons, the Johnsons, the New England Patriots
- Public institutions/facilities/groups: the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Sheraton, the House, the Presbyterian Church
- Newspapers: the Hartford Courant, the Times
- Nouns followed by a prepositional phrase beginning with "of": the leader of the gang, the president of our club
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 he had never felt before.
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:
using be and go
|We'll go by train. (as opposed to "We'll take the train.)
He must be in school.
||In spring, we like to clean the house.
||He's in church/college/jail/class.
||Breakfast was delicious.
He's preparing dinner by himself.
||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.
Principles of Choosing an Article
Choosing articles and determiners: Briefly defined, a determiner is a noun-marker: when you see one, you know that what follows is a noun or noun phrase. There is a list of such words in the table below. When you place your mouse-cursor over a word or pair of related words (such as either/neither), you will see in the right-hand frame an image describing the kinds of words that word can modify.
Zero article (see table below) means either that no article would be appropriate with that kind of noun or that that kind of noun can be used (in that context) without an article.
If you would like to see these images listed on one page, click HERE.
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.
- Isn't there any furniture 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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