In last week’s column, I explained to a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum based in Russia how the word “mine” could work as a determiner in a very limited, now archaic way in addition to its well-established functions as a pronoun or adjective. This is when “mine” doesn’t take its normal position after a noun phrase, as in “She is an old acquaintance of mine” where it works as a pronoun, but right before a noun phrase instead, as in this line of an English sonnet from the Elizabethan period: “Let not mine eyes be hell-driven from that light / O look, O shine, O let me die and see.”
Every determiner in English, I pointed out to John, takes this position right before the noun phrase to indicate whether that noun phrase is being used in a specific or general sense. A specific determiner (like the article “the” in “the woman who manages Microsoft Philippines”) is used when the speaker or writer believes that the listener or reader knows exactly what’s being referred to, and a general determiner (like “any” in “any senator worthy of respect”) is used when the speaker or writer is talking about things in general and the listener or reader doesn’t know exactly what’s being referred to.
John then posed this very incisive follow-up question: Are “specific determiners” and “general determiners” the same as “definite identifiers” and “indefinite identifiers,” respectively?
I explained that although there certainly are some overlaps between them, we can’t consider those classes of word markers as identical. This is because determiners comprise the broader class of words that determine or identify what’s being referred to in an utterance. Indeed, identifiers are just one of the two types of determiners, the other type being the quantifiers.
Identifiers comprise the indefinite articles “a” and “an”; the definite article “the”; the possessives “my,” “your,” “his,” “her,” “its,” “our,” and “their”; and the demonstratives “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.” On the other hand, quantifiers are words or adjective phrases that refer to indefinite quantities, like “several,” “few,” “a little,” and “many”; or numbers that denote specific quantities, like the cardinal numbers (“one,” “two,” “three” and so on), percentages (10%, 40%, 65%), and fractions (1/10, 2/5, 65/100).
This more detailed discussion of determiners drew an even more fundamental question from John: “What are determiners in the first place? Is there any clear definition? After reading some sites I would think that it is half a part of speech and half a function. Can we really say that determiners are a part of speech?”
Here’s my reply to John:
I have encountered many definitions of “determiner” that can’t seem to capture its sense and function clearly, but the most succinct and most instructive I’ve found is this one by the Macmillan Dictionary—“a word used before a noun for showing which thing or things you are talking about. The words ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘this’, ‘some’, and ‘every’ are determiners.”
With this definition, can we consider determiners “half a part of speech and half a function” as you’ve presumed based on your readings? I don’t think so.
Recall that “parts of speech” is a term in traditional grammar for the eight categories into which words are classified according to their functions in sentences, namely nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Of course, some old-school grammarians considered the articles “the,” “a,” and “an” as a distinct part of speech, but modern grammarians no longer do so, putting them instead in the category of determiners. And from the standpoint of modern grammar, determiners aren’t considered a formal word class or part of speech but just functional elements of sentence structure.
(Next week, to conclude this column, I will discuss how determiners are used in practice as functional elements of structure.)
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