What Is a Determiner? Interrogative Determiners, Relative Determiners, and More
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Determiners act somewhat like adjectives in that words from both classes precede a noun to help the reader to better understand the noun. While adjectives describe nouns using words that appeal to the five senses, determiners help the reader determine other aspects of nouns such as their number, definiteness, and proximity.
A determiner is a word that provides information about a noun. However, this information cannot be related to the five senses. If it is, the word is not a determiner but an adjective.
For example, the word these can be used as a determiner, such as in the short phrase, “these mushrooms.” The simple word these tells the reader a fair amount about the mushrooms in question. It tells the reader that there are at least two mushrooms (the word this would have been used if there was a single mushroom) and that the mushrooms are nearby (the word those would have been used if the mushrooms were not nearby).
Determiners almost always precede nouns. They can precede nouns immediately (“these mushrooms”), or they can be separated from nouns by one or more other words (“these large portabello mushrooms”). Determiners are almost always placed at the very beginning of a noun phrase.
Some of the most common determiners are a(n), the, this/that, these/those, each, any, all, none, some, what, which, and who. Most of these words can also be used as pronouns when they are not followed by a noun.
Different Types of Determiners
Different types of determiners tell the reader different things about the nouns which they precede. The most common types of determiners are outlined below.
An article (a, an, the) indicates whether the noun which it precedes is readily identifiable to the reader. An indefinite article (a or an) tells the reader that the noun being discussed is not a particular one that the reader should be able to identify. The definite article (the) tells the reader that a specific identifiable entity is being discussed.
When someone says, “I saw a movie last night,” it is not expected that the person who is being spoken to would know which movie is being talked about. However, this person could respond, “What was the movie about?” since it will be understood that the movie being asked about is the one that was seen last night.
Sometimes, the is used to refer not to a specific thing, but to a kind of thing in general. This is done when it doesn’t matter whether the addressee knows which particular thing is being discussed. An example of this is “I don’t like to take the bus.” The listener will understand that the speaker doesn’t like to take any buses.
The can also be used when the addressee will easily be able to correctly assume which particular thing is being discussed even if it hasn’t yet come up in the conversation. For example, if someone says, “I’m going to take the dog for a walk,” the listener will know that the speaker is talking about his or her own dog.
As a final note, articles — unlike most other determiners — can never function as pronouns. They must always be followed by a noun.
Degree determiners (e.g., few, many, little, much) explain the relative number of things being discussed.
Two aspects of degree determiners make them more like adjectives than other determiners. Few and many have comparative (fewer, more) and superlative (fewest, most) forms, which is a characteristic of adjectives but not of other determiners. Also, unlike other determiners, degree determiners have the adjective-like ability to have the adverb very placed in front of them, as in “They have given me very much support.”
Demonstrative determiners (this, these, that, those) point to the location of a noun. For example, if someone says, “I like this book,” they are expressing that the book is very close; perhaps they are holding it in their hands. This rule is flexible. It would be perfectly acceptable to point your finger a few inches away from a book and say, “I like that book.
Interrogative determiners (what and which) occur before nouns within phrases that ask questions. For example, what is an interrogative determiner in the phrase “What dress should I wear?” As with other determiners, removing the noun from the sentence turns the determiner into a pronoun (“What should I wear?”).
Relative and free relative determiners
The relative determiner (which) determines something about a noun within a relative clause (i.e., a clause which gives additional information about something). An example of which used as a relative determiner would be “This sandwich, which I paid $4.99 for, is quite tasty.” Notice how which is followed by the pronoun I
A free relative determiner acts just like a relative determiner. The difference is that a free relative determiner has no antecedent noun to which it refers (the sandwich was the antecedent in the previous example). There are other free relative determiners besides which. They include what, whatever, who, whoever, when, and whenever. An example of a sentence that uses a free relative determiner is “You can do whatever you want.”
The final type of determiner on this list are numerals (“one,” “two,” etc.). These determine the exact quantity of the nouns they precede. For example, two is a determiner in the sentence “Jeremy ate two breakfasts this morning.”
Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.