Source: An Introduction to Language (10 ed, 2014) by V Fromkin, R Rodman, N Hyams

[p 86:] For example, determiners specify whether a noun is indefi- nite or definite (a boy versus the boy), or the proximity of the person or object to the context (this boy versus that boy). Tense provides the verb with a time

[p 563:] determiner (Det)   The syntactic category, also functional category, of words and expres- sions, which when combined with a noun form a noun phrase. Includes the articles the and a , demonstratives such as this and that , quantifiers such as each and every , etc.

determine (v.)   "to come to an end," also "to settle, decide" (late 14c.)

I already read this and understand the definitions above. Hereafter, I am using the definition of 'determine' as quoted above, but please tell me if the Root 'determine' in 'determiner' (hereafter DET) means something else or has changed semantically.

I do not comprehend how DET can be interpreted to 'determine'.
p 86 above states that DET specify (ie: determine) something about the noun, but this appears false because context determines the DET used.

  • 5
    I don't understand the question. What do you mean by "determine"? Or are you not aware that "determiner" is not a transparent compositional expression derived from the verb "determine"? Please rephrase the question so we can figure out what you are asking.
    – user6726
    Jan 6, 2016 at 6:04
  • Not really. "Specify" and "determine" are not fungible. Your definition of "determine" is not right qua primary definition, and "determiner" is not compositionally derived from the verb "determine" plus agentive "-r". Are you asking whether "determiner" is a term of art in linguistics, whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meaning of the verb "determine"?
    – user6726
    Jan 6, 2016 at 21:19
  • @user6726 Are you asking whether "determiner" is a term of art in linguistics, whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meaning of the verb "determine"? Yes, I think. I am asking whether Linguistics's definition of 'determiner' is connected (in any meaning) to the ordinary English verb 'determine'. Even if 'determiner' cannot be decomposed morphologically, surely Linguistics chose 'determiner' for some reason?
    – user5306
    Jan 11, 2016 at 20:55
  • the way to answer this would be historically: see where "determiner" as first used in grammar or linguistics, and infer any such relationship from context.
    – user6726
    Jan 11, 2016 at 22:02
  • What was being asked was clear to me. It's sort of sad how many of you were puzzled.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 11, 2016 at 23:18

2 Answers 2


A determiner determines reference. Although in traditional grammar, nouns are spoken of as though they have reference, really they don't. Nouns predicate, but do not refer. Instead, noun phrases refer. That's why linguists insist on making subjects and other sentence arguments noun phrases, rather than nouns.

To get a noun phrase that refers from a noun, which predicates, you combine the noun with a determiner, and now you have something which can refer, a noun phrase. The fact that determiners may have no phonetic shape obscures what is going on and may make it seem sometimes that a noun can refer.

This is not to say that noun phrases with determiners do necessarily refer. But sometimes they do.

  • A 'naked' noun represents the universal. A noun with determiner[s] chooses a subset of that universe. Indefinite determiners add new members to the universe, while definite determiners select members that are already known.
    – amI
    Jan 6, 2016 at 23:59
  • 1
    @ami, a noun "represents the universal"?? That makes no sense to me.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 7, 2016 at 0:14
  • I don't think the brain explicitly stores universal quantifiers. I think 'a cat' is stored as 'one cat', where 'cat' is the topic of all cats.
    – amI
    Feb 10, 2016 at 18:06

From Ionin et al (2008). I think this explains it nicely (if the formalness doesn't scare you off):

The distinction between 'the' and 'a' is one of definiteness. We adopt here a standard view of definites [e.g., 'the'] as presuppositional and indefinites [e.g., 'a'] as quantificational expressions, as shown in (1) (for more discussion of different views of definiteness, see Heim, 1991).

a. Definiteness (Fregean analysis) [the z] j expresses that proposition which is

  • true at index i, if there is exactly one z at i, and it is j at i,
  • false at an index i, if there is exactly one z at i, and it is not j at i,
  • truth-valueless at an index i, if there isn’t exactly one z at i. (Heim, 1991:9)

b. Indefinites (quantificational analysis): A sentence of the form [a z] j expresses that proposition which is true if there is at least one individual which is both z and j, and false otherwise. (Heim, 1991:26)

Ionin, Tania, Maria Luisa Zubizarreta, and Salvador Bautista Maldonado. "Sources of linguistic knowledge in the second language acquisition of English articles." Lingua 118.4 (2008): 554-576.

  • Yeah, that's yet another way to interpret the question: as asking what the semantic function of those words is, entirely setting aside the word "determine".
    – user6726
    Jan 6, 2016 at 21:52