• The determiners as functional elements of sentence structure


    Second of two parts

    In this column last week, I discussed the two types of determiners in English, namely the identifiers and quantifiers, and explained that determiners don’t constitute a formal part of speech but just functional elements of sentence structure. This was in reply to a question from John Johnson, a Russian member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, who thought that determiners are “half a part of speech and half a function” based on his grammar readings.

    John then asked this follow-up question:

    “I would be very interested to know how to use determiners in practice. If a determiner is, in fact, a functional element, would it be correct to say that a noun phrase has this structure = determiner + modifier + nominal head? And if this is not the case, how do determiners relate to the three clause elements of subject, verb, and object?”

    Here’s my reply to John:
    In practice, determiners as a functional element are always positioned at the beginning of the noun phrase to indicate whether the headword—you called it the “nominal head”—is being used in a specific or general sense. We can’t really predict what grammatical element will follow the determiner right before the headword; it could be anything—an identifier, quantifier, adjective, adverb, another noun, or none at all—that the writer or speaker decides to use to achieve the desired level of modification.

    This is why the formula you suggested (noun phrase = determiner + modifier + nominal head) couldn’t be generally applicable for positioning the various functional elements in a noun phrase. Also keep in mind that determiners are in themselves modifiers—that is, determiners are subsumed by modifiers as a functional element—so it’s not really proper to treat them as distinct elements in a grammatical formula.

    I think a more useful general formula for the grammatical components that constitute a noun phrase would be the following:

    Noun phrase = premodifiers + headword (or nominal head) + postmodifiers

    Here, the headword (nominal head) is a noun; the premodifiers could be determiners, adjectives, adverbs, participles, or other nouns; and the postmodifiers could be prepositional phrases or relative clauses or combinations of these two.

    Consider the modification in the following noun phrase: “that exquisitely beautiful September day in the 1990s when we met entirely by chance in Rome.”

    The headword (nominal head) is, of course, the noun “day.” The premodifiers are as follows: (1) “that”—determiner, (2) “exquisitely”—adverb, (3) “beautiful”—adjective, and (4) “September”—another noun.

    The postmodifiers are as follows: (1) “in the 1990s” – prepositional phrase, and (2) “when we met entirely by chance in Rome” – relative clause.

    Now, to answer your question regarding the relations between determiners and clause elements, let’s use that noun phrase in this complete sentence:

    “We reminisced that exquisitely beautiful September day in the 1990s when we met entirely by chance in Rome.”

    Here, the whole noun phrase “that exquisitely beautiful September day in the 1990s when we met entirely by chance in Rome” functions as the direct object of the verb “reminisced,” with the pronoun “we” as doer of the action. We can see that the demonstrative “that”—a specific determiner—is pivotal to that sentence because it points to that particular and very specific day that’s being referred to.

    John asked one more question: Why can’t we say that determiners are another part of speech in addition to the eight traditional word categories?

    The prevailing school of thought in English grammar, I explained, is that determiners are a type of adjective because they perform the same function of modifying nouns. But there’s another school of thought that considers determiners a distinct word class, subsuming the articles, possessive adjectives, demonstrative adjectives, interrogative adjectives, and quantifiers. This is just a different but also perfectly valid way of classifying words.

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