Grammar Gremlins Explained: What are Determiners?

If you’re a parent of a primary school child, no doubt you’ve hit a grammar gremlin by now. This is confusion caused by pesky grammar terms.

Literacy is teeming with terms – terms which children need to know for the English SATs test, and the 11+ exam. There’s determiners, adverbials, abstract nouns, possessive pronouns, quantifiers, subordinate clauses, modal verbs – to name just a few.

Let’s look at determiners as the name alone confuses most children at first… Once they are explained though, determiners start to make much more sense. Just what are they?

What is a determiner?

In short, a determiner helps us to point out a specific noun in a sentence. It helps us determine what is being referred to – and always comes before a noun. Determiners can identify who owns an object and what quantity something is, as well as detailing specific opinion.

For instance:

 A fluffy cat sprang up the apple tree. 

A denotes that you are talking about a random cat unknown to you – while the refers to a specific tree familiar to you.

You wouldn’t write, ‘Fluffy cat sprang up apple tree.’ Grammar gremlin alert! Instead, these determiners make it clear what is being referred to – and as such – are essential little critters.

A and an are known as indefinite articles as it’s unclear what is being discussed in the sentence. These words are used for general statements. A dog… (queue random dog alert…) is very different to using the – a definite article – which implies the writer knows what’s being referred to.

It doesn’t stop there. This is just the beginning of determiners. Let’s look at some of the other word types with examples so you have the full picture.

Word groups defined as determiners:

  • Articles: a, an, the e.g. An apple a day keeps the doctor away
  • Demonstratives: this, that, those, these  e.g. This is my cookie!
  • Possessives: my, your, his, hers, our, its, their e.g. Your turn!
  • Quantifiers: a little, much, many, a lot of, most, some, any, enough e.g Most people are friendly.
  • Numbers: one, two, three, first, second, third e.g Three houses stood hunched together…
  • Question words: which, what, whose e.g. Which page shall I turn to?
  • Difference words: another, other e.g.  Other parents don’t wear orange tights and green skirts! 
  • Distributive: each, all, half, both, neither, either, every e.g. Every day seemed to crawl by slowly…
  • Pre-determiners: such, what, rather, quite e.g. What a gorgeous day! I had a such a brilliant time…

It helps to understand how determiners can change the emphasis in a sentence too…

______ afternoon _____ cat will scratch _____ leg

Every afternoon the crazy cat scratches their legs.

This afternoon my crazy cat will scratch your leg.

A Lemon Tree Tip

For most children, it’s all about understanding what these sentence parts actually do – what their job is. A fun activity is to print out a list of determiners, stick them onto card and cut into cards.

Play a game where you each turn a determiner card up and write a sentence starting with it on a mini whiteboard. If a noun always comes after a determiner, you can get them to make up silly sentences….

Both chocolate cupcakes had my name on them! 

Few children get to visit the moon on a Monday morning these days… 

Do you have a specific grammar gremlin you’d like us to explain? Get in touch, and our resident grammar guru, Nikki de Villiers, will explain it all… Just email Lemon Tree Tutors today.

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