Determiners: Common Mistakes to Avoid

In English, determiners are a broad class of words that do exactly what their name suggests: determine things. What they determine depends on the type of determiner used.

You probably use these words in speech and writing every day without ever thinking of them as ‘determiners’. But knowing the grammar behind them can help you avoid mistakes.

Mixing Up ‘A’ and ‘An’

Most native speakers know how to use indefinite articles (i.e. ‘a’ and ‘an’) intuitively. But they can be confusing if English is not your first language.

The correct term to use depends on how the following noun sounds. If it begins with a consonant sound, you should use ‘a’ (e.g. ‘a dog’). But if it sounds like it starts with a vowel, you should use ‘an’ (e.g. ‘an elephant’).

A dog and an elephant. (Image: Wellcome Trust/wikimedia)

A dog and an elephant.
(Image: Wellcome Trust/wikimedia)

Keep in mind that some words sound like they start with a vowel when they are spelled with a consonant (and vice versa). So we say ‘an hour’ because the ‘h’ in ‘hour’ is silent, but we say ‘a university’ because the ‘u’ at the start of ‘university’ is pronounced ‘yoo’.

Countable and Uncountable Nouns

There are rules about the determiners to use with countable and uncountable nouns. This is because we treat nouns that can be pluralised differently from those that cannot.

One issue here relates to articles. The definite article (i.e. ‘the’) can be used with either countable or uncountable nouns. But ‘a’ and ‘an’ can only be used with countable nouns.

We can’t say ‘a sand’, for example, because ‘sand’ is an uncountable noun and cannot be referred to singularly. Instead, we’d have to use a plural determiner like ‘some’.

Or 'a lot of sand', depending on quantity. (Image: Parvel)

Or ‘a lot of sand’, depending on the quantity.
(Image: Parvel)

Other determiners where there’s an important distinction include:

Determiners

Countable Nouns

Uncountable Nouns

Fewer/Less

‘There are fewer cats here than I expected.’

‘There’s less jam on my toast than on yours.’

Many/Much

‘I haven’t seen many dogs today.’

‘There isn’t much cake left.’

Number/Amount

‘A large number of parrots are roosting in my attic.’

‘My room has been flooded with a huge amount of custard.’

Using Two Determiners in a Row

Another common error is using two determiners in a row. This is never possible with referring determiners (i.e. words that identify a noun, such as articles and possessive pronouns).

For example, it would always be wrong to say, ‘I kicked my a football.’ This is because ‘my’ and ‘a’ are both referring determiners. We need to pick one depending on what we are saying.

Picking the right determiner is as simple as kicking a ball... Oh. Never mind. (Image: Gabriel Leuenberger/YouTube)

Picking the right word is as simple as kicking a ball… Never mind.
(Image: Gabriel Leuenberger/YouTube)

But it’s also wrong to use two determiners in a row more generally. So if we want to use a quantifier and a possessive in the same sentence, we need to separate them with a preposition:

Would you like some my chips?Incorrect

Would you like some of my chips?Correct

Here, we use ‘of’ to separate ‘some’ and ‘my’. Make sure to check carefully if using more than one determiner in a sentence.

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20/02/17

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