Author Topic: Determiners as functional elements of sentence structure  (Read 4228 times)

Joe Carillo

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Determiners as functional elements of sentence structure
« on: June 25, 2020, 01:49:34 PM »
Almost six years ago a Russian member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum posed a very interesting question about a little discussed functional element of English sentence structure—the determiners, which as we know are any of those words that are normally positioned right before a noun phrase to indicate whether that noun phrase is being used in a specific or general sense.

A determiner is specific when the speaker or writer believes that the listener or reader knows exactly who or what is being referred to, as the article “the” in “the woman who won the top award for food condiment startups.” On the other hand, a determiner is general when the speaker or writer is not talking about things in particular and the listener or reader doesn’t know exactly who or what is being referred to, as the adjective “any” in “any journalist worthy of trust and respect is knowledgeable and cognizant of a country’s libel laws.”

                              IMAGE CREDIT: IN.PINTEREST.COM


The English determiners, which comprise the broader class of words that determine or identify what is being referred to in an utterance, are of two types: identifiers and quantifiers.

Identifiers comprise the indefinite articles “a” and “an”; the definite article “the”; the possessives “my,” “your,” “his,” “her,” “its,” “our,” and “their”; and the demonstratives “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.”

Quantifiers are words or adjective phrases that refer to indefinite quantities, like “several,” “few,” “a little,” and “many”; or numbers that denote specific quantities, like the cardinal numbers (“one,” “two,” “three” and so on), percentages (10%, 40%, 65%), and fractions (1/10, 2/5, 65/100).

Some grammarians classify the English determiners differently, but the differences should not be cause for worry as they are simply in terms of nomenclature and not functionality. In particular, the Pinterest chart shown in this post classifies determiners into six types: (1) articles, (2) possessives, (3) demonstratives, (4) numerals, (5) ordinals, and (6) quantifiers. They are subsumed by the two-type classification we are using here as follows: the identifiers subsume the articles, possessives, and demonstratives; and the quantifiers as a broader type subsume the numerals, ordinals, and quantifiers.

As a rule,  determiners are positioned at the beginning of the noun phrase to indicate whether the headword—the noun bring modified—is being used in a specific or general sense. We can’t really predict what grammatical element will follow the determiner right before the headword; it could be anything—an identifier, quantifier, adjective, adverb, another noun, or none at all—that the writer or speaker decides to use to achieve the desired level of modification.

When using determiners, we must always keep in mind that they are in themselves modifiers—that is, determiners are subsumed by modifiers as a functional element. We can then use the following general formula for sequencing the grammatical components that constitute a noun phrase:

Noun phrase = premodifiers + headword + postmodifiers

Here, the headword is a noun; the premodifiers could be determiners, adjectives, adverbs, participles, or other nouns; and the postmodifiers could be prepositional phrases or relative clauses or combinations of these two.

Let’s take a close look at the modification sequence of the following noun phrase:

“that exquisitely beautiful September day in the 1990s when we met entirely by chance in Rome”

The headword of that noun phrase is, of course, the noun “day.” The premodifiers are as follows: (1) “that”—a determiner, (2) “exquisitely”—an adverb, (3) “beautiful”—an adjective, and (4) “September”—another noun.

The postmodifiers are as follows: (1) “in the 1990s”—a prepositional phrase, and (2) “when we met entirely by chance in Rome”—a relative clause.

Now let’s use that noun phrase in a complete sentence to have a clearer idea of the grammatical relationship between determiners and clause elements:

“We reminisced that exquisitely beautiful September day in the 1990s when we met entirely by chance in Rome.”

We can see that the whole noun phrase “that exquisitely beautiful September day in the 1990s when we met entirely by chance in Rome” functions as the direct object of the verb “reminisced,” with the pronoun “we” as doer of the action. The demonstrative “that”—a specific determiner—is pivotal to that sentence because it points to that particular and very specific day that’s being referred to in that statement.

(Next week: Using the pronoun “what” to direct attention to a statement)  July 2, 2020

This essay, 2,000th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the June 25, 2020 Internet edition of The Manila Times,© 2020 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this essay online in The Manila Times:
Determiners as functional elements of sentence structure

« Last Edit: June 27, 2020, 08:27:32 PM by Joe Carillo »