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A Basic Guide to Determiners

What is a 'determiner'?

A determiner goes before a noun to give more information.

I saw a dog.

I saw the dog.

I saw my dog.

I saw that dog.

I saw some dogs.

I saw a lot of dogs.

I saw seven dogs.

All these sentences have a different meaning. The reason is because the determiner changes.

'A' or 'The'

Both 'a' and 'the' mean 'one' - but there is a difference.

a = one of many

the = one of one

the orange sweet ("I want the orange sweet")

a blue sweet ("Can I have a blue sweet?")

the triangular sweet ("I want the triangular sweet")

a round sweet ("Can I have a round sweet?")

'a' or 'the' - things you cannot see

This is probably the hardest. What do you say if you can't see the noun?

You have to know if it's 'one of one' or 'one of many'?

For example, when you go clothes shopping, you say "I'm going to buy a t-shirt". This is because you know that shop will have more than one t-shirt.

A good example is to think about when you go somewhere you have never been before (maybe on holiday). At home, you know where the supermarkets are. On holiday, you do not.

In London (where I live), I would say to a friend "I'm going to the supermarket". I know where they are and the one I am going to.

In Greece (where I don't live), I would say to a friend "I'm going to a supermarket". I do not know where they are.

I'm getting a train.
I'm getting the train.

What's the difference?

When you know which train, you use 'the'. It is one train of one. When you do not know, you use 'a'. It will be one train of many.

Example conversation

Ally: Where do you want to have dinner?

Brian: Let's go to a Chinese restaurant?

Ally: How about the restaurant near the school?

Brian: Nah, it's too far. What about the place next to the bus stop?

Ally: Yes, let's go there.

"a Chinese restaurant"

Brian used 'a' because he does not know which restaurant.

"the restaurant"

Ally knows the place she is talking about so uses 'the'.

"the school"

Ally knows the place she is talking about so uses 'the'.

"the place" / "the bus stop"

Brian knows the places he is talking about so uses 'the'.


These determiners are used to show who owns the noun.

  • my

  • his

  • her

  • its

  • their

  • your

  • our

These are possessive adjectives.


You can show where the noun is by changing the determiner.

Single nouns - this / that

This book is my favourite.
I don't like that book.

Plural nouns - these / those

My professor made me read these books.
You should read those books. They were great!

Countable Nouns

If the noun is 'countable' then some easy determiners are the numbers (one, two, three etc.).

one cake

two cakes

three cakes

In English we use words to replace numbers:

two = a couple of

three = a few

a couple of cakes

a few cakes

'Some' is another word we use. The amount changes depending on the noun.

'A lot' is more than 'some' but less than 'all'.

'All' is all of the noun.


First, second, third, and last are similar determiners. They are called ordinals.

These are the results of the mens' 100m race at the Olympics.

The first person to finish was Marcell Jacobs.

The second person to finish was Fred Kerley.

The third person to finish was Andre De Grasse.

The last person to finish was Su Bingtian.


We use 'more', 'fewer' or 'the same' to compare countable nouns.

There are more cakes on the right.

There are fewer cakes on the left.

There are more sweets on the left.

There are fewer sweets on the right.

There are the same number of sweets on the left and right.

"You have more sweets than me."

"No I don't, we have the same."


Uncountable nouns are harder, because you can't count them.

We use 'a little', 'some' and 'a lot of'.

a little water some water a lot of water

a lot of rice some rice a little rice


When we compare uncountable nouns we use the words 'more', 'less' and 'the same'.

There is more coffee on the right.

There is less coffee on the left.

There is more pasta on the left.

There is less pasta on the right.

"I've got more pasta than you."

"You've got less pasta than me."

Why is there sometimes no determiner?

Determiners are dropped when we talk about some places. These places are proper nouns. For example:

I went to France.

She came to 7-Eleven to meet me.

We are going to Tokyo next month.

Some determiners are dropped for places such as 'school', 'university' and 'church'. Why?

I'm going to school.
I'm going to the school.
I'm going to a school.

In the first sentence, there is no determiner. We just used the noun (school). Why is that?

The determiners is dropped because you go to that school place regularly. It is where you study or work. In the full sentence you would name the school but because you are familiar with it, you drop all but the word 'school'.

For example, you are a student that goes to Tokyo International Language School. Here is a FULL conversation with a friend.

A: What are you doing today?

B: I'm going to Tokyo International Language School.

A: When are you going?

B: In about an hour.

A: I'll go with you.

This is what you actually say.

A: What are you doing today?

B: I'm going to Tokyo International Language school.

A: When are you going?

B: In about an hour.

A: I'll go with you.

There is no determiner because there never was a determiner - you are dropping the full name of the place you are going to and just using the end.

In the other two sentences we can use 'the' and 'a' because you are using them in the normally ('one of one', or 'one of many').

University example

You do not go to university. You visit a university in London. This is a conversation between you and your mum.

Mum: Did you see a university today?

You: Yes, I went to London University.

Mum: Did you like it?

You: Not really, it was very busy.

'a' is used because Mum is talking about one of many universities.


You visit Cambridge University.

You: Mum, I went to Cambridge today?

Mum: Did you visit the university?

You: Yes, it was very good and so beautiful.

'the' is used because Mum is talking about one of one.


You go to Cambridge University regularly. You are having a conversation with your mum.

Mum: Did you go to Cambridge University today?

You: Yes, I had a great lecture on physics.

She is just saying 'university' because you and her both know she's referring to the proper noun 'Cambridge University'.

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