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Articles, determiners, and quantifiers are those little words that precede and modify nouns:

the teacher, a college, a bit of honey, that person, those people, whatever purpose, either way, your choice

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, several books, 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 dog's life."

This categorization of determiners is based on Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln. 4rth Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994.

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 dancing:

#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 a little 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 "much" is reserved for questions and negative statements:

  • Much of the snow has already melted.
  • How much snow fell yesterday?
  • Not much.

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.

Authority for this last paragraph: The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers by Maxine Hairston and John J. Ruszkiewicz. 4th ed. HarperCollins: New York. 1996. Examples our own.

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 hair.
  • Many an apple has fallen by October.

    Quantifiers: A Basic Quiz

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    I. In the following sentences, fill in the gaps with one of the following quantifiers:
        much, many
    a. It seems to me that we've had assignments in English this term.
    b. How material can we be expected to read in one week?
    c. books are not in the library.
    d. I've had headaches already because of stress.
    e. depression can be attributed to being overworked.

    II. Using the button at the bottom of the quiz, check your answers in Part I. (Incorrect responses will be blanked out.) If you got them all correct, go back and substitute either "lots of" or "a lot of" where you think those quantifiers might be appropriate. Re-check your answers.

    III. In the following sentences, fill in the gaps with one of the following quantifiers:
        much, many, few, little, most.
    When you've gotten all the answers right, see if you can substitute other quantifiers from the list. (HINT: Three of the last four sentences could have two different answers.)
    a. Our yard looks awful this summer. There are too weeds.
    b. I didn't use fertilizer last spring, and that has made a difference.
    c. Also, I've paid attention to how rain we've had.
    d. I'm afraid it's rained times this summer, and the grass is turning brown and dying.
    e. experts say you should fertilize your lawn in the fall.
    f. It didn't seem to do my lawn good.
    g. advice you get from experts doesn't seem to help.
    h. of my neighbors ignore their grass, and they have better lawns this year.

    IV. In the following sentences, fill in the gaps with one of the following quantifiers:
        a little, little, a few, few.
    Again, when you've gotten all the answers correct, go back and try substituting other quantifiers. (HINT: Three of the four can have more than one correct response.)
    a. They say knowledge is a bad thing.
    b. I know instances where that proves true.
    c. people know as much about computers as Tomasz does.
    d. But it does him good when the whole system goes down.


    Quantifiers: Fill in the gaps

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    1. I'm having of trouble passing my driving exam.
    2. the movies were rated PG.
    3. information proved to be outdated.
    4. We're close to the project deadline, but there is still time left.
    5. Although there are brilliant students in this state -- thousands, even, only will choose to remain in the state after graduation.
    6. We were able to destroy the parasites with our antigen, but of them survived to cause trouble.
    7. a student has passed through these doors.
    8. Although of the lawn is open to the sun, there are of shade trees to make it comfortable.
    9. I think he drank wine last night.
    10. the evidence was taken from the police safe last night.


    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 sports car.
    • My wife is making double my / twice my salary.
    • This time we added five times the amount of water.

    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 took.
    • Two-fifths of the respondents reported that half the 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 get in.
    • What an idiot he turned out to be.
    • Our vacation was such a grand experience.

    Half, both, and all can occur with singular and plural count nouns; half and all can occur with mass nouns. There are also "of constructions" with these words ("all [of] the grain," "half [of] his salary"); the "of construction" is required with personal pronouns ("both of them," "all of it"). The following chart (from Quirk and Greenbaum) nicely describes the uses of these three predeterminers:


    The Articles


    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. The is required when the noun it refers to represents something that is one of a kind:

    The moon circles the earth.

    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.

    The is required when the noun it refers to represents something named earlier in the text. (See below..)

    If you would like help with the distinction between count and non-count nouns, please refer to Count and Non-Count Nouns.
    We use a before singular count-nouns that begin with consonants (a cow, a barn, a sheep); we use an before 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 useful device and a union matter because the u of those words actually sounds like yoo (as opposed, say, to the u of an ugly incident). The same is true of a European 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).

    Merriam-Webster's Dictionary says that we can use an before an h- word that begins with an unstressed syllable. Thus, we might say an hisTORical moment, but we would say a HIStory book. Many writers would call that an affectation and prefer that we say a historical, but apparently, this choice is a matter of personal taste.

    For help on using articles with abbreviations and acronyms (a or an FBI agent?), see the section on Abbreviations.

    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 the truth.

    In a subsequent reference to this newspaper, however, we will use the definite article:

    There are situations, however, when the newspaper must determine whether the public's safety is jeopardized by knowing the truth.

    Another example:
        "I'd like a glass of orange juice, please," John said.
        "I put the glass of juice on the counter already," Sheila replied.

    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 replied.

    Generic reference: We can refer to something in a generic way by cautionusing 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 to be.

    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 class.

    Proper nouns: 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)
    • Pluralized names (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 Times
    • Nouns followed by a prepositional phrase beginning with "of": the leader of the gang, the president of our club

    Abstract nouns: 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.

    Zero articles: 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 the 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 the train.)
    He must be in school.
    with seasons In spring, we like to clean the house.
    with institutions He's in church/college/jail/class.
    with meals Breakfast was delicious.
    He's preparing dinner by himself.
    with diseases 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.

    Zero article (see table below) means 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.


    If you would like to see these images listed on one page, click HERE.

    Notice that there is a difference between a "stressed" some or any and an "unstressed" some or any. Consider the words in ALL CAPS as shouted words and you will hear the difference between these two:

    • 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.

      Articles: A Basic Quiz

      created with JCloze

      "Cold Comfort"
      by Michael Castleman
      from Mother Jones Magazine, March/April 1998; reprinted with permission.

      Not so long ago, many of us resisted separating glass, cans, and paper out of our garbage. What hassle. Today, of course, every second-grader knows that world's resources are limited and that recycling helps preserve them. We act locally, while thinking globally. It's time to bring same consciousness to health care as we face growing medical crisis: loss of antibiotic effectiveness against common bacterial illnesses. By personally refusing -- or not demanding -- antibiotics for viral illnesses they won't cure, we can each take step toward prolonging overall antibiotic effectiveness.

      Media reports have likely made you aware of this problem, but they have neglected implications. Your brother catches cold that turns into sinus infection. His doctor treats him with antibiotics, but bacteria are resistant to all of them. The infection enters his bloodstream -- a condition known as septicemia -- and few days later, your brother dies. (Septicemia is what killed Muppets creator Jim Henson a few years ago.) Or instead of cold, he has infected cut that won't heal, or any other common bacterial disease, such as ear or prostate infection.

      Far-fetched? It's not. antibiotics crisis is real. Consider Streptococcus pneumoniae: This common bacterium often causes post-flu pneumonia. (Pneumonia and influenza combined are country's sixth leading cause of death, killing 82,500 Americans in 1996.) Before 1980, less than 1 percent of S. pneumoniae samples showed any resistance to penicillin. As of last May, researchers at Naval Medical Center in San Diego discovered that 22 percent of S. pneumoniae samples were highly resistant to it, with another 15 percent moderately so. And most recent statistics from Sentry Antimicrobial Surveillance Program, which monitors bacterial resistance at 70 medical centers in U.S., Canada, Europe, and South America, show that 44 percent of S. pneumoniae samples in the U.S. are highly resistant, and worldwide, resistance is at all-time high (55 percent).

      Strains of S. pneumoniae are also now resistant to tetracycline, erythromycin, clindamycin, chloramphenicol, and several other antibiotics. And there's a "plausible risk" that we'll run out of options for treating other types of pneumonia as well, according to infectious disease expert Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller University in New York. not-too-distant future promises potential failure of medicine's ability to treat broad range of bacterial infections -- from urinary tract infections to meningitis to tuberculosis.

      Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a direct outgrowth of the overuse of these drugs. In classic Darwinian fashion, more doctors prescribe antibiotics, more likely it is for some lucky bacterium blessed with minor genetic variation to survive antibiotic assault-and pass its resistance along to its offspring. The solution is obvious: Doctors should prescribe antibiotics only as last resort.

      This strategy works. In early 1990s, Finnish public health authorities responded to rising bacterial resistance to erythromycin by discouraging its use as a first-line treatment for certain infections. From 1991 to 1992, erythromycin consumption per capita dropped 43 percent. By 1996, bacterial resistance to antibiotic had been cut almost in half. But American doctors are doing spectacularly lousy job of keeping their pens off their prescription pads, most notably by prescribing antibiotics for common cold and other upper respiratory tract infections (URIs). Data from National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey show that bronchitis and URIs account for third of nation's antibiotic prescriptions. Antibiotics treat only bacterial infections and are completely powerless against viral illnesses. Every doctor knows this.

      Yet, according to recent study by Dr. Ralph Gonzalez, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, when adults consult physicians for URIs and bronchitis that often follows them, more than half walk out with prescription for antibiotic. If doctors simply stopped prescribing antibiotics for conditions they know don't respond to them, we'd instantly be well on our way to minimizing antibiotic resistance.

      Why are doctors so ready to prescribe antibiotics? Physicians are quick to blame public. Patients, they say, demand antibiotics, and doctors are so terrified of malpractice suits they prescribe them to keep their customers happy and their lawyers at bay.

      There's another side to story: Doctors are trained that there's pill for every ill (or there should be). All of their medical education conspires to make antibiotic prescription their knee-jerk reaction to any infection, which may or may not have bacterial cause.

      In addition, prescribing antibiotics is the doctors' path of least resistance. It's easier than taking time to explain that antibiotics are worthless against viral infections, and to recommend rest, fluids, and vitamin C-or, God forbid, herbal, homeopathic, Chinese, or other complementary treatment. Most medical practices schedule patients at 15-minute intervals. Rather than doing what they know is right for public health, it's much quicker for doctors to whip out the prescription pad and send people on their merry, albeit misinformed way.

      In better world, medical education would be less drug-oriented and health care system would encourage doctors to take time to be effective health educators. But even in our imperfect world, some basic health education can help prevent frivolous antibiotic use from boomeranging.

      Like our doctors, we Americans have been socialized into believing that antibiotics are miracle drugs that can cure just about everything. They aren't, and they don't. We've also been trained to think that colds and their lingering coughs should clear up in few days. They usually don't -- even if you load up on cold formulas that promise to make all symptoms magically vanish. A study by University of Virginia professor of medicine Jack Gwaltney, one of nation's top cold researchers, shows that nearly one-third of adults with colds are still coughing after 10 days. Meanwhile, according to a recent survey by researchers at Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans, after just five days of cold symptoms, 61 percent of adults are ready to head for their doctors -- and ask for unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions.

      My fellow Americans, the next time you feel cold coming on, mark your calendar. Unless you start coughing up lots of green sputum or develop unusual symptoms -- for example, a fever that does not respond to aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) -- think twice about calling your doctor before two weeks have passed.

      What I do instead is, from moment I feel the infection coming on, I drink lots of hot fluids, take 500 to 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C four times a day, suck on zinc lozenge every two waking hours, and mix half a teaspoon of tincture of echinacea, immune-boosting herb, into juice or tea three times a day.

      Reliable studies show that these approaches reduce severity and duration of colds. If you develop persistent cough at tail end of your cold, keep taking vitamin C and try an over-the-counter cough suppressant containing dextromethorphan.

      If we hope to preserve antibiotic effectiveness, it's up to us, public, to convince doctors to prescribe these drugs only when they're necessary. This from-the- bottom-up approach is nothing new. Health consumers have taken the lead in showing doctors value of fitness, nutrition, and alternative therapies. It's time we get serious about antibiotics.

      "Cold Comfort" is reprinted here with permission from the March/April 1998 issue of Mother Jones magazine;1998, Foundation for National Progress. It is used, also, as an example of a cause-and-effect essay, in the Principles of Composition section of this Guide.