In a grammar book that I'm reading, an adjective is defined as:

A word that modifies a noun or a pronoun. (To modify is to limit or point out or describe: that book; another chance; the blue ribbon). For convenience the articles a, an, and the are usually classified under adjectives.

When I looked up in dictionary,

a, an, the, that etc. are known as determiners. How can they be classified under adjectives?

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    Dupe english.stackexchange.com/questions/60099/…
    – user16269
    Mar 17, 2012 at 8:12
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    The "dupe" is closed as NARQ Mar 17, 2012 at 12:50
  • @ArmenTsirunyan: the dupe was closed as 'general reference'. Either way, it is still a duplicate.
    – Mitch
    Mar 17, 2012 at 16:41
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    I'm voting Not Constructive. The precise grammatical terminology for various ragbag elements of the language must inevitably come up peripherally here on ELU, but asking how some particular grammararian justifies calling articles/determiners "adjectives" seems to me nothing but an invitation to open-ended discussion. Mar 17, 2012 at 17:45
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    In the old system, "the", "a", "an" were called articles and not adjectives, and "this", "that", "some", "any" "few", and so forth, were called adjectives. Since both of these groups of words play a similar role in grammar, modern grammar classifies them both as determiners. Your grammar book is using some conflation of the old and modern systems of grammar. Mar 18, 2012 at 12:27

5 Answers 5


The term determiner is newish (about 80 years old), and hasn't had much uptake in school grammars. The study, in English, of French and other modern languages has employed the term DETERMINATIVE ADJECTIVE since at least 1806, when Dufief wrote,

"S. Why do you call them determinative?

M. Because, when they are expressed before nouns, we know how often the object represented by the noun is repeated" (p. 40).

In 1924, Palmer was the first to try to corral this group of theretofore-heterogeneous English words by adopting the concept from the French analysis.

"To group with the pronouns all determinative adjectives (eg article-like, demonstratives, possessives, numerals, etc.), shortening the term to determinatives (the "déterminatifs" of the French grammarians) firstly because there are divergent opinions as to whether they are adjectives or pronouns, and secondly, because most of the members of this category may be used indifferently as pronouns or as modifiers of nouns" (p 24).

And, in 1933, Bloomfield introduced the slightly different term, DETERMINER, into English linguistics when he wrote,

"our limiting adjectives fall into two sub-classes of determiners and numeratives [1]... The determiners are defined by the fact that certain types of noun expressions (such as house or big house) are always accompanied by a determiner (as, this house, a big house)" (p 203).


The following extract from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (page 538) explains why the classification of determiners will vary according to the reference you are using:

This book follows the practice of most work in modern linguistics in recognising a primary part-of-speech distinction between adjectives and determinatives. In traditional grammar, by contrast, determinatives are wholly or almost wholly subsumed under the adjective category - they are said to be 'limiting adjectives', as opposed to 'descriptive adjectives'.

In all the grammar books I know, the articles are shown as determiners, a word class quite distinct from adjectives. It is quite wrong to say articles are usually classified under adjectives. What is the title of the grammar book you are using?

  • Essential English Grammar - Philip Gucker
    – user103241
    Mar 17, 2012 at 8:19
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    @user103241: From what I can see of it, the book is outdated and inaccurate. There are better and more recent introductions to the subject. Mar 17, 2012 at 8:35
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    @user103241: There are many possibilities and you really need a qualified English teacher to advise you, taking into account your level of English, but I suggest the following, all of which have exercises: ‘English Grammar in Use’ by Ronald Murphy, ‘How English Works’ by Michael Swan and Catherine Walter and ‘Oxford Practice Grammar’ by John Eastwood. For a general reference grammar, I recommend ‘An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage’ by Geoffrey Leech, Benita Cruickshank and Roz Icaniĉ. All are available from Amazon UK. Mar 17, 2012 at 9:26
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    @user103241, If your goal is to improve your written expression, I doubt that you would benefit from studying a basic English pedagogical grammar. There's enough evidence for this from the quality of your brief posts here. In my opinion you are far better off doing plenty of reading, with a slightly raised attention to how native speakers express complex ideas. If something is not clear to you, then you can ask a question here. Of course, if you are interested in grammar from a linguistic point of view then you need to read a descriptive grammar book.
    – Shoe
    Mar 17, 2012 at 10:22
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    @user103241: I agree with both Barrie and Shoe. It all depends on what you want to use it for. At your level, however, you need better guidance than the catechism of shibboleths taught in Anglophone schools. The classical way to do it is to get a grammar or two, a dictionary or two, a chresthomathy or two, and figure it out yourself or with a teacher. Now the Web provides dictionaric and chrestomathic services 24/7, but a good grammar is hard to find. I recommend McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English as the best portable grammar of English. Mar 17, 2012 at 15:24

Determiners occur mostly in the same positions syntactically as adjectives do, and have a modifying function of nouns like adjectives. Determiners don’t act exactly like other adjectives but they act enough like them to be classified usefully there.

For example, the answer to the question “which man?” is properly answered by something like “the green man”, or, similar, “that man” or “some man” or “a man” (no man in particular).

You can’t always replace an adjective with a determiner. You can’t replace green in “the man is green” to get *the man is that. But in the end most of the properties of determiners are those of adjectives.

  • Any fixes that can be suggested?
    – Mitch
    Mar 17, 2012 at 18:19

Let us look at the examples for knowing the difference b/w determiners, and adjectives.

  1. The man 2. little man .....in exmaple 2 'little' does not make acceptable NP. Hence 'little' is an adjective.

  2. 'several man' incorrect, but 'several men' correct. Hence is 'several' is a determiner.

  3. 'Old man' and 'old men' are acceptable; hence 'old' is an adjective.

  4. He is an old man. He is old. Both are correct sentences. 'Old' is an adjective.

  5. He is the man. He is the. The last example is unacceptable. Hence 'the' is a determiner.

M. Fayyaz

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