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If you want to use English correctly, you need to be able to use determiners with accuracy. Therefore, in order to achieve TOEFL success, you should make sure that your knowledge of determiners is very advanced. This article is going to explain what determiners are and then outline the rules for using them. It will end with a short quiz to test your knowledge.

What are determiners?

Determiners are words that come before nouns in a sentence and help define what exactly the noun refers to. It always comes before the noun and never comes after it. If you have used an adjective to modify the noun, then the determiner will come before that, too. For example, in the following sentences, the determiner is “the”:

  • The dam was built to provide hydroelectric power.
  • The big, new dam was built to provide hydroelectric power.

In the second example, two adjectives were placed in front of the noun, and so the determiner preceded them as well. It still refers to the noun, though.

The most important rule to know in terms of determiners is that all singular nouns require a determiner, but for plural nouns it is optional. We have already introduced “the” as a kind of determiner, so let’s look at some more examples to further explore this rule:

  • The dam provided more than ten thousand people with electricity after its construction.
  • Dams provide relatively clean energy because they do not produce emissions, but they also cause environmental destruction when they are built.
  • The dams in eastern China provide electricity for the most populated places on earth.

In the first example, there is a determiner used because the noun is singular, but in the second and third examples there is a key difference. Here, we have shifted from “dam” to “dams.” The second example has no determiner because we are talking about dams in general (ie all the dams of the world) whereas the third example is focused on a particular set of dams (limited in scope by geography). It also contains a second determiner that modifies the noun “places.” In this case, it is limited to one set of places (the most populated ones) and so we need to use the definite article.

If, for example #2, we added a determiner, the meaning would become quite different:

  • The dams provide relatively clean energy because they do not produce emissions, but they also cause environmental destruction when they are built.

Now it seems as though we are referring to a particular groups of dams that were mentioned previously. It is grammatically correct, but the meaning is altered in a moderate way. You must be careful because if the dams were not previously mentioned, then this sentence would become logically flawed.

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There are different types of determiners, each of which will be examined below:

  • Articles
  • Demonstratives
  • Possessives
  • Qualifiers

Articles

In a previous article, I explained the difference between definite and indefinite articles. The definite article is “the,” which we saw in the examples above is a kind of determiner. In fact, indefinite articles (“a” and “an”) are also considered a kind of determiner as they have basically the same function.

When you are referring to something in general, and it is in the singular form, you can use “a” or “an.” This is in opposition to the definite article, which refers to something specific that is either well-known or previously agreed upon. We can see how they function in the following sentences:

  • A wild animal is definitely not ideal when considering a pet for a young family.
  • The police in Manchester receive dozens of calls about escaped exotic pets every year.

In the first example, we are referring to not just one single wild animal, but any wild animal. However, in the second example we are not referring to just any police force, but one particular police force. For that reason, we have had to use the definite article.

Note that it is possible to sometimes replace the singular noun with a plural one, causing relatively little change in meaning:

  • Wild animals are definitely not ideal when considering a pet for a young family.

When we do this, of course, it is not necessary to use any article at all because we are referring to all wild animals through a plural form.

Demonstratives

There are four demonstratives, and these can all be used as determiners in English grammar: this, that, these and those.

Generally speaking, demonstratives are used when people are talking in close proximity because they refer to the physical location of items. When talking about a noun, you might say “this ____” and point to it.

For that reason, it is not particularly important to know this language for TOEFL as it is unlikely that you will have to gesture to any physical thing and comment upon it, but there are some instances where demonstratives may still be used. They can be used in story-telling or in terms of abstract ideas. In particular, “that” and “those” can be used to refer to something previously mentioned, even though it is not a physical thing that can be pointed to.

  • When I was ten years old, I saw a film that really changed the course of my life. If it weren’t for that film, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.

Quantifiers

As the word “quantifier” is clearly related to the word “quantity,” you can probably guess that it asks the question: “How much of the noun is being referred to?”

Indeed, quantifiers include words like “some,” “all,” “many,” and “most.” These can be placed in front of a noun or noun phrase to modify it and tell the reader or listener how much of the noun is being referred to. One common phrase that appears in TOEFL is “Some people…” Of course, we can take the noun “people” and alter it with other quantifiers instead:

  • Many people think that governments ought to work together to explore space.
  • Most people think that governments ought to work together to explore space.
  • A few people think that governments ought to work together to explore space.

As you can see, these different quantifiers have added different meanings to the sentence by essentially changing the number of people who think this idea.

You might be wondering whether all quantifiers can be used with all nouns. To answer that, look at the following sentence:

  • Much people think that governments ought to work together to explore space.

Is this correct?

No!

Quantifiers are grouped into different categories. Some can be used with uncountable nouns, some with countable nouns, and some with both countable and uncountable nouns. You will need to be careful with those that can only describe one kind of noun because it would be considered an error to use the wrong quantifier for that particular type of noun.

If you are worried about this or other aspects of your grammar for TOEFL writing, you can check out our fantastic writing correction service.

Possessives

Finally, we come to possessives. As the name suggests, possessives denote possession, meaning ownership over something. Some of the most common possessives are my, your, its, and their.

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As with the other determiners in this article, these words are placed before a noun in order to signify which of the nouns it is. In this case, rather than saying it is “the book,” (ie a book that has been previously referenced), we can say “my book,” which tells the listener that the book being talked about is the one owned by me. Again, this adds vital information to a sentence by specifying what exactly the noun is. It is not your book, his book, on their book – it is mine.

  • When I was fourteen, my mother pressured me to join the school’s rugby team.

In this case, the determiner used tells the listener the important fact that not just any random mother pressured him to join the rugby team, but rather his own mother. This may seem obvious, but in grammar we must make the meaning very clear to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding.

Test

Look at the following five sentences and pick the one that is incorrect:

  1. The lifeguard was not on duty when the boy drowned.
  2. An investigation was launched into the boy’s death.
  3. The beach remained closed for two weeks while police investigated.
  4. Boy’s parents gave an interview on TV several days later.
  5. Their grief was obvious from the

Answer: #4 is incorrect because we must introduce the boy with “the”:

The boy’s parents gave an interview on TV several days later.

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