Articles, determiners, and quantifiers are those little words
that precede and modify nouns:
a college, a bit of
honey, that person, those people, whatever purpose, either way,
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,
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
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
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
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
is reserved for questions and negative statements:
Much of the snow has already melted.
How much snow fell yesterday?
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
Many an apple has fallen by October.
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
My wife is making
double my / twice my
This time we added
five times the amount of
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
Two-fifths of the respondents reported that
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
What an idiot he turned out to be.
Our vacation was
such a grand experience.
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.
required when the noun it refers to represents something that is one of a
The moon circles
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.
We use a before singular count-nouns that begin
with consonants (a cow, a barn, a sheep); we use
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 horse, a history book, a
hotel), but if an h-word begins with an actual vowel sound, use an an
(as in an hour, an honor). We would say
a union matter because the u of those
words actually sounds like yoo (as opposed, say,
an ugly incident). The same is true of
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 and one begin with a w sound (as if they
were spelled wuntz and won).
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
In a subsequent reference to this newspaper,
however, we will use the definite article:
There are situations, however, when
must determine whether the public's safety is jeopardized by knowing the
Another example: "I'd like
a glass of orange juice, please," John said. "I put
the glass of juice on the counter already," Sheila
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
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
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
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)
(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
Nouns followed by a prepositional phrase beginning with "of":
the leader of the gang, the president of our club
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.
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
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:
idiomatic expressions using
be and go
We'll go by train. (as opposed to "We'll take
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.
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.
Notice that there is a difference between a "stressed"
or any and an "unstressed" some or
any. Consider the
words in ALL CAPS as shouted words and you will hear the difference between
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.