Determiners (The Basics) - Podcast Episode 19

Welcome to episode 19 of The English Sessions. Determiners. I am your host and English teacher, Mike Butler. These podcasts can help you improve your English! Together, we will talk about grammar… pronunciation… structure... and have some fun too. Remember to visit my website, to contact me for private lessons, and for more content.

You can also read the transcript of this audio on the website, as you listen to this episode.

Listen for these words today:

Useful - something ‘useful’ is something that helps you to do something. In my example today, I say that mugs are useful. Mugs are a type of cup that often hold hot liquids. My coffee mug is very useful, because it helps me to get that coffee!

Break the rules - In English, ‘rules’ is a word that talks about something that we are told we must do. For example, laws, regulations, these are rules. Rules are often created by people who think they have authority over you. Rules are created by people who think that you need to be told what to do. Languages have rules, but also, the languages we use are always changing, and often, there are many things in languages that break the rules. In other words, the rules are not being followed, we are not doing something that the rule tells us to do. We are breaking the rules. I will talk more about this in the second half of the show.


In episode 2 of The English Sessions, I promised an episode about determiners. Well, here it is. Episode 2 was about ‘other’ and ‘another’. In that episode, I said that the words ‘other’ and ‘another’ are determiners. So, what is a determiner? Simply put, a determiner comes before a noun, and they help to make it clearer to the listener or reader what noun you are talking about. Very common determiners are words like, ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’ (articles).

In many ways they are similar to adjectives. In fact, in some dictionaries, ‘other’ and ‘another’ are listed as adjectives. I will argue today that they are definitely determiners, not adjectives. We are going to use the Cambridge dictionary as a source of information for determiners today.

So what is the difference between an adjective and a determiner? Adjectives describe nouns: ugly; stupid; beautiful; enormous; difficult… these are all adjectives. My picture was ugly; the president’s comments were incredibly stupid; I have a beautiful dog named Greta; the elephants ears were enormous; this grammar lesson is very difficult! You see? I describe all those things, picture/president/dog/elephant/lesson, with adjectives.

So remember, a determiner doesn’t really describe the noun; instead, a determiner helps to make it clearer to the listener what noun we are talking about. Here is an example.

In my kitchen, there are many mugs. I have ugly mugs, and I have beautiful mugs. The ugly mugs are just as useful as the beautiful mugs. So, I love them all equally.

Okay, did you hear some determiners in my example? Earlier, I said that the word ‘the’ is a determiner. Why did I use ‘the’ in my example? Let’s talk about it. I said that I have mugs. First, I described the mugs with adjectives. Ugly mugs and beautiful mugs. Now, as my listener, you now know that I have mugs, and you also know what I think about them. You now know how I choose to describe them. Ugly or beautiful. Now, after I described the mugs, I want to tell you more about the same mugs, so, I use ‘the’. “The” is often used before nouns that the listener already knows about. It is very obvious that I am talking about the same mugs that I talked about in the previous sentence.

Here is my example again: In my kitchen, there are many mugs. I have ugly mugs, and I have beautiful mugs. The ugly mugs are just as useful as the beautiful mugs. So, I love them all equally.

The ugly mugs. The beautiful mugs. ‘Determiner’ and then ‘adjective’ and then ‘noun’. Did you hear other determiners in my example? Yes! The word ‘my’ is a determiner. My kitchen, not your kitchen. Right? Determiners make it very clear to the listener what noun we are talking about. It is my kitchen not yours. “Many” is a determiner. Many mugs. Again, I said ‘many’ because I wanted to make it clear that I am not talking about just one or two mugs. I have ‘many’ mugs. As you can see, determiners are everywhere, and they are NOT the same as adjectives.

Let’s talk about this sentence again: “The ugly mugs are just as useful as the beautiful mugs”. Let’s change this sentence using other determiners.

First, let’s look at this sentence without determiners. “Ugly mugs are just as useful as beautiful mugs”. Well, now we don’t know which mugs I am talking about, because there is no determiner. We must assume that I am saying that ALL ugly mugs and ALL beautiful mugs, in the whole world, are useful. To be honest, I don’t think that’s true. Go to the website, to see a picture of a pretty useless mug.

Quite a useless mug if you wanted to use it to carry a liquid. I guess it's useful if you are looking to cut your hand open.

 Now let’s try it with other determiners. “My ugly mugs are just as useful as my beautiful mugs”. Okay, that’s pretty clear. But wait, some are not my mugs. Some mugs are my partner’s mugs. So, this determiner is not the best to use. It changed which mugs I was talking about! Now, we are talking about only some mugs in my kitchen, because some mugs are not my mugs.

Let’s change the determiner again: “Your ugly mugs are just as useful as her beautiful mugs”. Huh?! Okay, now we are just not making sense. So there we go. This shows us the power of determiners.

Okay, we are going to talk about some important rules for determiners after the break. But first, I have an assignment for you. Actually, I have two assignments for you.

First, does your native language have determiners? Some languages don’t. If your native language does not, tell us how this same idea is expressed in your language. In other words, how would you indicate the difference between ‘the mug’, which is a mug that your listener already knows about, and ‘a mug’, which is a mug that the listener doesn’t already know about. Leave a message for me on the website.

Second, the Cambridge dictionary has a great list of determiners on their website. I will include this link on the English Sessions website. ( ). Go to the Cambridge page, and write a story using all of the determiners on this list. It’s a challenge, I know, but I also know that some of you out there love a good challenge. Send it to my email,, and we will discuss it, or I will read it on the podcast.
Okay, let’s talk about some rules of determiners, and when determiners break the rules.

Here are a couple rules to remember about determiners.

#1: If you have a singular, countable, common noun, for example, “potato”, the rule says that you should have a determiner before this noun.
    “Potato” is singular, there is only 1. 1 potato. “Potato” is countable, you can count them. 1     potato, 2 potatoes, 3 potatoes. “Potato” is a common noun, that means it is not the official     name of a person, or a place, like The Statue of Liberty, or a person’s name, like Mike or     Alexandra or Greta. Okay, so now we know, ‘potato’ is a singular, countable, common noun.     Here is my example, “Yesterday, I ate a potato. The potato was purple”.

#2: You can only use the indefinite articles, “a” and “an”, before a singular noun, and you cannot use it before a plural noun.
    The rule says that you can say “a potato”, but you cannot say “a potatoes”.

A lot of students have trouble with rule #1, partly because it’s kind of a stupid rule, but a native speaker expects to hear a determiner in this situation, with singular, countable, common nouns, and they may be confused if you don’t use one. So, unfortunately, that makes it important. It is very common for my students from Asia, or Eastern Europe, to be confused about rule #1. Some languages like Polish and Korean don’t have words like ‘a’ ‘an’ and ‘the’ at all! If you love maps as much as I do, go to the website to see a map of the world indicating which languages in which parts of the world don’t have these types of words. ( )

Rule #1, using a determiner before a singular, countable, common noun, is broken all the time. Often, you will not see a determiner before common places that we go to all the time. For example, native English speakers say “go to church”. or, go to school. I will go to school now. In the UK, they often say go to university, or, in hospital. I’m sorry, I am in hospital, so I can’t talk about grammar right now.

In my opinion, rules are meant to be broken, but, native English speakers will break them in specific ways. It is useful to learn how native speakers break the rules, instead of just making your own rules. 6

Any questions? Write to me at . Leave a message for me on the website, and I will play it on the podcast. Make sure to subscribe to this podcast so you won’t miss an episode. Visit for more content. Please rate and review The English Sessions on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Find us on social media. Twitter @theEsessions; Instagram @englishsessionswithmike; Search for The English Sessions on Facebook. Until next time, this is Mike signing off.


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