1

Cambridge Dictionary has a definition of ‘certain’ as a determiner.

certain
determiner
uk /ˈsɜː.tən/ us /ˈsɝː.tən/
B1
particular but not named or described:

However, neither in the Wikipedia article nor in other sources, it is possible to find exactly what type of determiners this word belongs to and what is the function of this type of determiners.

Let’s look at the first example from the same dictionary entry:

We have certain reasons for our decision, which have to remain confidential.

Why the determiner was used, as well as the meaning of the word ‘certain’ is completely unclear. It can be removed, and the meaning will not change.

We have reasons for our decision, which have to remain confidential.

Let’s look at an example from the page 309 of the book An Institutional Approach to the Responsibility to Protect, Gentian Zyberi, Kevin T. Mason, Cambridge University Press, June 27, 2013

Also the General Assembly carries certain responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, especially when the Security Council is deadlocked.

Nothing will change in meaning if you just say:

Also the General Assembly carries responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, especially when the Security Council is deadlocked.

Why do we need this determiner if it doesn’t really mean anything?

5
  • 3
    Are you certain that it's meaningless?
    – Hot Licks
    May 31 at 21:39
  • 1
    Certain doesn't "belong to a type of" determiner, any more than the belongs to a type of article. Certain is a determiner, which is a part of speech. It's used in a number of phrases and constructions, some of which you mention, often to be able to refer specifically without revealing identifying details. That's useful when one is obliged to do some things but not to do others, as in a contract or other legal writing. It's not colloquial English, but is much more likely in written text, possibly being read aloud or recited formulaically. May 31 at 22:01
  • 1
    If the word looks meaningless to you, then don't use it. If you encounter it, just ignore it, since it has no meaning for you. May 31 at 22:12
  • @JohnLawler In the Wikipedia article, determiners are divided into several types and one of them is articles: ‘Common kinds of determiners include definite and indefinite articles (like the English the and a or an), demonstratives (this and that), possessive determiners (my and their), cardinal numerals, quantifiers (many, both, all and no), distributive determiners (each, any), and interrogative determiners (which)’. My question was what kind does ‘certain’ belong to.
    – Eagle
    May 31 at 22:18
  • @JohnLawler Your second comment is not an answer. A language is a system of signs for the exchange of information. If an author use some word, it contains some information, and it would be wrong to ignore this word. I want an answer, not advice to skip something. If you don't understand the meaning of a road sign, are you ignoring it too?
    – Eagle
    May 31 at 22:27

3 Answers 3

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In its entry on determiners The Cambridge Dictionary of English Grammar (p115) has a section called Semideterminers. It states:

This term is used by Biber et al. (1999) to refer to certain quasi-adjectival phrases, which function like determiners to specify an aspect of the head noun, in combination with the indefinite or definite article. They include a certain (smile)... .
The classifications and specifications provided by these semi-determiners are unlike those of ordinary adjectives, and comparable to those of demonstratives or postdeterminers.

The Biber reference above is to the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. On page 77 is the section 4.7.5 Semi-determiners:

In addition to the determiners so far mentioned, words like same, other, another, last, and such have some adjectival characteristics and some determiner characteristics. These forms lack the descriptive meaning that characterizes most adjectives... .

Quirk et al. in A Comprehensive Grammar Of The English Language (p430) list certain in section 7.35 Restrictive adjectives:

Restrictive adjectives restrict the reference of the noun exclusively, particularly or chiefly. Examples, within noun phrases, include: a certain person

... certain in a certain person is a restrictive adjective (equivalent to 'a particular person') while in a certain winner it is an intensifier

In its section on determinatives (which it distinguishes from determiners) The Cambridge Grammar Of The English Language (p392) has this entry:

Various and certain
These are somewhat marginal members of the determinative category, less clearly distinct from adjectives than most. Both occur with plural heads:

[62] a. [Various items] are missing. b. [Certain problems] remain.

... Certain in [b] implies that the problems could be specified. In this example, certain is non-proportional, while in other cases it can be proportional, with a strong "not all" implicature: Such action might be justifiable in certain circumstances.

On the basis of the above explanations and examples I am reluctant to call certain meaningless.

2
  • A fine answer. In 'We have certain reasons for our decision, which have to remain confidential.' I read 'After thorough analysis, we have (you can rest assured) identified definite reasons ....' I've added the modal (here, reassuring) parenthetical I pick up as a pragmatic addition. 'We have reasons for our decision, which have to remain confidential.' is more brusque, dismissive even, less reassuring that this is a reasonable response. // In OP's other examples, the 'certain' is restrictive ('non-global') but in saying so again reassures that a decent analysis and tasking has been done. Jun 1 at 14:06
  • @EdwinAshworth. Thanks. That's a useful extension of my answer.
    – Shoe
    Jun 1 at 14:58
1

It is a stylistic judgement to say that it is meaningless or unnecessary.

Certainly, it is a word that many teachers of composition might take points off, for using such a vague and unhelpful word. But it certainly adds meaning.

For example, in:

... carries certain responsibility ...

it's saying that there is a very specific responsibility, maybe unique among other responsibilities or maybe the subject has this responsibility uniquely or (well, yeah, it's saying there's something specific without saying what that specific thing is). But the point is that this does have meaning even if it is stylistically frustrating or disingenuous. Without 'certain', the responsibilities aren't very special.

There are other phrasings that similarly seem to mean nothing but add flavor. For example:

I have no time for the likes of you. (from 'The little Engine That Could')

'the likes of' could easily be removed, but it does have (a vague) meaning.

To say categorically that a word is not needed is a bit autocratic. It sounds like you're saying it should be wiped off the face of the Earth and its memory buried under a riverbed. People use it, you may not want to use it, it may be annoying to many, using it less may make the world better, but it certainly has meaning and is needed under some circumstances to give that meaning.

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  • I was not interested in stylistics, but in understanding the meaning of the text, namely the difference in meaning: with this word and without it. I am not saying that this word should not be used at all, but I want to understand what it is used for. Do you mean to say that it plays the role of some kind of emphasis?
    – Eagle
    May 31 at 22:49
  • Based on what you have written, you yourself do not fully understand what it means: 'it's saying that there is a very specific responsibility, maybe unique among other responsibilities or maybe the subject has this responsibility uniquely or...'.
    – Eagle
    May 31 at 22:54
  • If we take the definition of the word 'determiner' from the same dictionary: 'in grammar, a word that is used before a noun to show which particular example of the noun you are referring to:'. But the word 'certain' does not show which particular example of the noun you are referring to.
    – Eagle
    May 31 at 22:58
  • To what kind of determiner can the word 'certain' be attributed? In the Wikipedia article, determiners are divided into several types: ‘Common kinds of determiners include definite and indefinite articles (like the English the and a or an), demonstratives (this and that), possessive determiners (my and their), cardinal numerals, quantifiers (many, both, all and no), distributive determiners (each, any), and interrogative determiners (which)’.
    – Eagle
    May 31 at 23:02
  • You may not be interested in stylistics, but all I'm saying is that I think your distaste for the word is a matter of style or pragmatics rather than semantics or syntax. You may want to update/edit your question to rewrite your last sentence and clarify what you really want to know. Grammatically speaking, 'certain' seems like a plain old adjective to me and not a determiner (which has very very particular grammatical properties. I wouldn't take Wikipedia as an authority on grammar (and probably not any particular dictionary as an authority on parts of speech).
    – Mitch
    Jun 1 at 14:39
1

Also the General Assembly carries certain responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, especially when the Security Council is deadlocked.

Specific responsibilities are assigned to the General Assembly.

Also the General Assembly carries responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, especially when the Security Council is deadlocked.

Responsibilities (apparently of a general nature) are assigned to the General Assembly.

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