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Style Manual

Determiners

Determiners always go with a noun. They tell people something specific or general about the noun.

Determiners are ‘articles’ that go with nouns

Determiners introduce a noun or a noun phrase. Determiners give more information about the noun they are introducing. They are also called ‘articles’.

They show users:

  • which things you are referring to
  • whether you are referring to specific or to generic things and ideas
  • how many things there are.

Determiners include:

  • articles such as ‘a’, ‘an’ or ‘the’
  • pronouns such as ‘those’, ‘my’ or ‘some’
  • numbers such as ‘2’, ‘14’ or ‘23 million’.

Definite articles refer to a specific thing or things

The word ‘the’ is the ‘definite article’. It defines which specific thing you are referring to.

Example

They finished the report on time and on budget. [This sentence refers to a specific report.]

You can use ‘the’ for a group of things, but only if you refer to a specific group.

Example

The employees were on time for the meeting. [Specific employees were on time.]

Don’t use ‘the’ when you make a generalisation.

Example

People work in offices. [This is a generalisation about people and offices.]

Indefinite articles let you make generalisations

The words ‘a’ and ‘an’ are ‘indefinite articles’. Use them when you are referring to a generic thing or idea rather than a specific one.

Example

A school should teach a child how to read and write. [This could be any school and any child.]

An EL2 usually supervises several staff. [This could be any EL2.]

Choose ‘a’ or ‘an’ according to the sound of the word after it:

  • Use ‘a’ if the following word starts with a consonant sound.
  • Use ‘an’ if the following word starts with a vowel sound.

The same rule applies to shortened words and phrases (abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms, and contractions).

Some vowels have a hidden ‘y’ consonant sound at the beginning. For example, you would read ‘universal’ as ‘yew-nee-ver-sahl’.

Say the noun out loud. If it starts with the hidden ‘y’ sound, use ‘a’.

Example

It was an error. [The ‘e’ sound in ‘error’ is a vowel.]

It was a cold office. [The ‘c’ sound in ‘cold’ is a consonant.]

The job required a university degree. [The ‘u’ sound in ‘university’ sounds like the consonant ‘y’.]

For words that start with ‘h’:

  • Use ‘an’ only before words that start with a silent ‘h’, such as ‘honour’ or ‘hour’.
  • Use ‘a’ for all other words starting with ‘h’, such as ‘historian’ or 'hotel’, when the ‘h’ is spoken.

Pronouns can function as determiners

Some pronouns introduce nouns, so they work as determiners. Examples of these pronouns are ‘any’, ‘some’, ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘these’, ‘those’, ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’, ‘her’.

Pronouns, working as determiners, can show which noun you are referring to.

Example

Write some instructions.

Those meetings were long but fruitful.

Give it your best shot.

Pronouns can also quantify the noun.

Example

Every public servant knows the code of conduct.

Most reports are well written.

Few people have time to fill out forms.

Numbers can function as determiners

Numbers work as determiners because they give information about how many nouns they are introducing.

Example

They had 2 meetings.

This is my second cup of coffee for the day.

This month, the minister delivered 3 keynote addresses.

Release notes

The digital edition relates grammatical concepts to the principles of plain language. It relates word choice to grammatical information about types of words.

It provides an overview on types of words to introduce grammatical concepts about parts of speech and how they relate to sentence structure.

The sixth edition called types of words ‘word classes’. It had summary information about parts of speech on pages 68 to 70. This formed part of Chapter 5 on grammar.

The Content Guide did not have any in-depth information on grammatical concepts.

About this page

References

Altenberg EP and Vago RM (2010) English grammar: understanding the basics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

This page was updated Wednesday 9 September 2020.

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