Determiners are the short words like a, the, this that come at the beginning of
(or "specify") a noun phrase. In English, determiners fill the gap in the noun phrases ______ small boy,
_____ three people so that these phrases can be used freely as the subject or object in a sentence.
Determiners differ from adjectives in the following ways:
- Determiners must come before the first number or adjective in the noun phrase.
- Determiners cannot be chained (e.g. *the these books), whereas adjectives generally can
(these large green weighty books).
- Determiners are a closed or non-productive category, whereas adjectives represent a
- Determiners cannot be modified by words like very, most, quite that
can modify adjectives.
- Determiners have different forms to adjectives (e.g. masculine ending in -on and feminine
in -a: no adjectives have a feminine ending -a!).
- Determiners allow a noun phrase to be used freely in a sentence, whereas an adjective doesn't
necessarily do so (e.g. tall boy can't be the subject/object in a sentence without a word
such as a, the, this before it). In other words, they make the noun phrase
For the above reasons, beware of using terms like 'possessive adjective' or 'demonstrative
adjective' to refer to determiners.
Determiners in French
We class the following as determiners in French:
|le, la, l', les||the|
|du, de la, de l', des, de||some, any||
|ce, cette, ces, cet||this, that|
|mon, ma, mes||my|
|ton, ta, tes||your|
|son, sa, ses||his/her/its/one's|
|Other plural numerals?||see below|
Form of determiners
- un specifies a masculine noun and une a feminine noun. The -n of un is pronounced
before a word beginning with a vowel, but not before a word beginning with a consonant or 'h aspireacute;' word.
- le specifies a masculine noun and la a feminine noun. Both are replaced by l' before
a word beginning with a vowel. les specifies a plural noun, and the -s is pronounced before a word
beginning with a vowel.
- du specifies a masculine singular noun, de la a feminine singular noun, and des a plural
noun. Instead of du or de la, de l' before a word beginning with a vowel. The -s of des
is pronounced before a word beginning with a vowel.
- mon, ton, son are used with a masculine singular noun; their forms ending -a are used
with a feminine singular noun, and the forms in -es are used with plural nouns. The -n is pronounced
before a word beginning with a vowel, and not before a word beginning with a consonant or an 'h aspireacute;' word.
- notre, votre and leur specify singular nouns and have corresponding forms ending in -s
used to specify plural nouns; the -s is pronounced before a word beginning with a vowel.
Use of determiners in French
In English, determiners are optional with plural nouns and uncountable nouns: we need (some) milk;
I don't have (any) scissors. In French, determiners are generally required to specify all noun phrases
unless that noun phrase consists of a proper name (e.g. place name, person's name, name of a product).
Classification of numerals
The categorisation of numerals is ambiguous. They can behave as determiners in that they
must occur before any adjectives, and that they make a noun phrase referential. However, they behave as
adjectives in that they can occur with a determiner: these three men. Christensen et al (1995) suggest
that such words should be analysed as a class of determiners that can be combined (p. 142), which seems to
almost defeat the point of the category. An alternative view is that numerals can be either determiners
or adjectives (Jones (1996), p. 212). A drawback that I see with this analysis is that determiners appear to
be a closed category were it not for numerals.
Christensen et al (1995) also class autre(s) and même(s) as determiners, but
there is little syntactic justification for this as far as I can see.