Using determiners in English

When deciding between the articles a and an, evaluate the initial sound of a word, and not necessarily the initial letter. Use a when the word starts with a consonant sound.

a coat
a lamp
a bottle

use an when the word begins with a vowel (A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y) sound.

an eagle
an octopus
an extra ticket

There are exceptions and inconsistencies to this rule. The most notable among them is the H. If the word starts with a hard "h" sound (as is the case with holy, high, and hover), employ a. If the word begins with a silent or unstressed h (like in honor, and hour), use an.

After an hour, lacey returned from the store.
It was an honorable discharge from the navy.

Another common exception to the rule are words that start with the long u sound, for example: unique, union, and eulogy would all get the determiner "a."

There is an unusual smell in the house.
This is a united country.
This is a university with a large campus.

Countable nouns are nouns that we count with numbers, for example: I have three cats. These words have a singular and a plural form. The singular form can use either one or a/an as a determiner.

one (a) house two houses
one (a) chair two chairs
one (a) kid two kids
one (an) idea two ideas

When asking a question about the amount of a countable noun, we use “How many?”

Q: How many houses do you have?
A: I have just one house.
Q: How many ideas did your team brainstorm during the meeting?
A: We came up with seven ideas.

Uncountable nouns cannot be counted with numbers. They include abstract ideas and objects that are difficult to count (gases, liquids, small and numerous objects). In most cases, they do not have a plural form.

water rice research salt
sugar peace love evidence
beauty anger coffee oil
I want some coffee.
There is a lot of beauty in the world.

To ask about the quantity of uncountable nouns, we must use “How much?”

How much research is there on brain cancer?

*Each languages differs on what nouns are considered countable and uncountable. For example, "hair" is uncountable in English, unless referring to individual hairs.

Q: How much hair does your baby have?
A: She doesn’t have very much hair yet.
I’ve noticed Tom has a few gray hairs these days.

The words some (including somebody an something) and any (as well as anything and anybody) are used when the speaker cannot specify or doesn’t need to specify an exact amount. They can be used with countable and uncountable nouns.

As a general rule, some is used in positive sentences:

I got some great produce at the farmer’s market this weekend.
I’d like some water.
Let’s make some cookies tomorrow!
Somebody is at the door.

And any is usually used in negative sentences or questions:

Do you have any ideas for Krista’s birthday party?
Did anybody send you the notes for the meeting on Friday?
I didn’t do anything this weekend.

In English there are three articles: a, an, and the. A and An are indefinite articles; whereas the is a definite article. There are several ways to distinguish when to use a definite or an indefinite article in English.

A and an are used for several different reasons:

1. Before an unspecified singular noun.

an umbrella can be very helpful on a rainy day.

2. Before number collectives.

a gallon of milk

3. Before nouns that form adverbial phrases about quantity, degree, or amount.

a slight breeze
a bit of snow

The is used to:

1. When there is a definite noun, or the noun was previously specified.

Can you hand me the paperwork from yesterday.

2. Indicate the noun is unique

The Grand Canyon is an amazing place.
The moon is bright tonight.

3. Indicate a natural phenomenon

The wind is an important aspect of life in the south of France.

4. Reference to a period of time

The Renaissance was an exciting time.

5. Indicate all the members of one family

The Bradford family left for their annual ski trip.

6. Before the superlative form

This is the finest jewelry.
The least comfortable.

7. Before ordinal numbers

The 41st ceremony.

There are many different cases where articles are omitted before a noun. Many can just be memorized over time, while other follow hold fairly consistent rules.

1. The names of countries, continents, cities, days, months, languages, most diseases, and sciences.

North America has three countries.
January is my least favorite month.
Italian is a beautiful language.
Malaria poses a risk in tropical environments.

2. Before a noun when it is used in a general way.

Olive oil is often used in Italian cooking.
Cheetahs can run faster than humans.

3. Before a phrase that is made up of a preposition + a noun.

They went to school on foot.
Lacey is at school.
Many American students are in debt.

4. Before proper, abstract, and material nouns. However there are exceptions, for example: the United States, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, the West Indies, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

London is one of the most populated cities on the planet.
Rice cooks in 20 minutes.
Idealism is unrealistic.

5. When the noun follows phrases like kind of, type of, sort of, style of, etc.

What kind of food do you want?
That’s the kind of sportsmanship we need.
What style of dance is your favorite?

6. Before a mealtime.

Breakfast will be ready soon.
I had lasagna for dinner.

7. Before common nouns that are in pairs.

The bond between father and son is strong.
I pronounce you husband and wife.

Learning the difference between each and every requires a nuanced understanding of English. The two words, while not identical, are similar in meaning and use.

Each is used when you want to highlight the individuality of the group or number of things being discussed.

She put makeup on each eye.
The cat left a scratch on each of Lily’s legs.
Each student has unique interests.
He considered each option carefully.

Unlike each, the word every stresses all the members or items in a group. It is used with adverbs (like practically, almost, rarely etc.) and in reference to repeat events.

Every child must take the standardized tests.
I go to the dentist every six months.
Nearly every family got a discount at the market today.

There are six types of determiners in the English language. Determiners take on a variety of functions in a phrase; however, they always modify a noun. In many cases it can be hard to distinguish determiners and adjectives because they both modify nouns.

Adjectives usually describe or modify the quality of a noun.

I have a purple notebook.

Determiners express information about definiteness, proximity, relationship, and quantity. They are placed before the noun in a sentence.

Articles A, an, the An elk ran through the field.
Possessive pronouns My, your, his, her, their My cat doesn’t like your dog.
Demonstrative pronouns This, that, those, these This documentary is more interesting than that one.
Interrogative pronouns Which, what, whose Which country would you like to see?
Numerals One, two, a dozen etc. Let’s buy a dozen eggs.
Quantifiers Many, all, a lot of Many families use the public library.

Determiners are broken into three main categories: predeterminer, central determiner, and postdeterminer. As the names indicate, they must appear before the noun in the correct order.

Predeterminers include “multiplying expressions,” fractions, and the words all and both. You don’t usually two predeterminers in the same sentence.

Ten times the size
One half the amount
Both my sisters

Central determiners include articles, possessive pronouns, and demonstrative pronouns.

All your cats
Half the airplane
All those activities

Postdeterminers include cardinal and ordinal numbers, as well as general ordinals, and quantifiers. Unlike predeterminers, there can be multiple postdeterminers in the same sentence.

Your next two meetings
All his subsequent writings
Our many achievements