In the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Huddleston and Pullum use the term "determinative" for the lexical category of words like the, etc. And they use "determiner" for the grammatical function that is characteristically filled by determinatives (but which can also be filled by things such as genitive noun phrases).

In an older generation of reference grammars, however, notably Quirk, et alia's Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the use of these terms is exactly reversed. That is, "determiner" is the lexical category and "determinative" is the grammatical function.

The difference has been bugging me for a long time. Can anyone provide a principled explanation as to why we should prefer one over the other? I'm sure Huddleston and Pullum had a motivation to alter terminology that's been in use since Bloomfield's day, but I can't find any discussion in their work.


1 Answer 1


I asked Geoff Pullum, and he responds:

The term "determinative" for the category of words like articles, demonstratives, and quantifiers is at least as old as A Grammar of Spoken English on a Strictly Phonetic Basis by Harold E. Palmer and F. G. Blandford (1939), and they take it from the French "adjectif determinatif". And "determiner" doesn't seem ever to have been a clearly defined lexical category. Huddleston and I like the appealingly mnemonic suffixal parallels: "adjective" and "determinative" are both categories (word classes); "determiner" and "modifier" are both functions.

It is most unfortunate that Quirk et al. used the terms the other way round; but they were needlessly going against Rodney Huddleston's earlier works, such as his Cambridge University Press textbook Introduction to the Grammar of English, and we are not aware of any precedent they were following.

  • Normally, "that" is a determinative. If considering a context like "I think that it is true", is incorrect to call this "that" a determinative? If you looked the word up in a dictionary, it's obviously still a determinative, but here it is not functioning as a determiner.
    – minseong
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 19:12

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