General and specific determiners

Determiners are words which come at the beginning of the noun phrase.

They tell us whether the noun phrase is specific or general.

Determiners are either specific or general

Specific determiners:

The specific determiners are:

  • the definite article: the
  • possessives: my, your, his, her, its; our, their, whose
  • demonstratives: this, that, these, those
  • interrogatives: which

We use a specific determiner when we believe the listener/reader knows exactly what we are referring to:

Can you pass me the salt please?
Look at those lovely flowers.
Thank you very much for your letter.
Whose coat is this?

General determiners:

The general determiners are:

  • a; an; any; another; other; what

When we are talking about things in general and the listener/reader does not know exactly what we are referring to, we can use an uncount noun or a plural noun with no determiner:

Milk is very good for you. (= uncount noun)
Health and education are very important. (= 2 uncount nouns)
Girls normally do better in school than boys. (= plural nouns with no determiner)

… or you can use a singular noun with the indefinite article a or an:

A woman was lifted to safety by a helicopter.
A man climbing nearby saw the accident.

We use the general determiner any with a singular noun or an uncount noun when we are talking about all of those people or things:

It’s very easy. Any child can do it. (= All children can do it)
With a full licence you are allowed to drive any car.
I like beef, lamb, pork - any meat.

We use the general determiner another to talk about an additional person or thing:

Would you like another glass of wine?

The plural form of another is other:

I spoke to John, Helen and a few other friends.


We use quantifiers when we want to give someone information about the number of something: how much or how many.




Hello Sad,

'a' and 'an' are the same indefinite article. The only difference is that 'an' is used before words that begin with a vowel sound (not with a vowel, but a vowel sound). This is a purely phonological change -- in other words, grammatically, 'a' and 'an' are the same word; we only say 'an' instead of 'a' because it's easier to pronounce due to the vowel sound that follows it. This is somewhat similar to changing 'y' to 'e' in Spanish -- 'padres y hijos' is not correct, instead it is 'padres e hijos' -- though grammatically 'y' is a conjunction, not a determiner. But 'y' changes to 'e' based on the first sound in the word after it, not based on grammar -- this is just like how 'a' changes to 'an' based on the first sound in the word after it, not based on grammar.

Articles are used in a noun phrase, i.e. they go with a noun (e.g. a safety feature). Sometimes there is an adjective between the article and the noun (e.g. an advanced safety feature), but the meaning of the article is the same and it modifies (tell us about) the noun, not the adjective.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for replying.

If it is based on the sound after it, then why can I not say 'An advanced safety features?'

Your colleague said because 'features' is plural here. But then you said now, 'an' is based on the sound after it and not related to the noun following. I got confused. Please clarify.

And if it goes with singular nouns only, then is this sentence correct ' An advanced safety system'
Since system here is a single noun.

Hello again Sad,

I think you are confusing two separate issues here.

The first issue is what article is used: the indefinite article ('a' or 'an'), the definite article ('the') or the zero article (no article). This is a grammatical question and is dependent on the noun phrase which the article is part of and the context in which it is used.

The second issue is one of pronunciation and spelling. If the indefinite article is required then you need to decide whether to use 'a' or 'an'. This is dependent on the pronunciation of the word following the article (which may be a noun, adjective or adverb).


In terms of the first issue, the indefinite article is used only with singular nouns. Neither 'a' nor 'an' can be used with a plural noun such as 'features' or 'safety features'.

If you make the noun singular ('feature') then the indefinite article is possible and may be correct, depending on the context. If it is correct then you need to choose between 'a' and 'an'. The key is the sound which follows, not the spelling. For example, we say 'a university' because 'university' starts with the sound /j/ which is not a vowel sound even though it is spelled with 'u'.


'An advanced safety system' is fine. Of course, whether or not it is correct will depend on the context.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for replying.

So if I wrote ' Titanic had an advanced safety system'
Then according to the.context, it is fine, did I understand correctly?/

Hello Sad,

We use definite articles with ship names, however, so we would begin 'The Titanic'. Other than that, it's fine.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear all,
if the first word the name of a person or a place, then we do not use "the" with namse like these, for examples: Victoria Station, Edinburg Castle, Buckingham Palace but we use "the" when say The Eiffel Tower - why?

Hi Deniseko,

There are some general rules for using articles with place names on our definite article: the page, but I'm afraid right now that page isn't working for technical reasons. Therefore I'm going to refer you to another page that has the same content as a temporary solution.

In the end, however, this is mostly a matter of convention, as of course Buckingham Palace and Edinburg Castle, like the Eiffel Tower, are also well-known buildings.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sirs, Please look at the following sentence:

"The Korean war never formally ended and the threat of a new devastating conflict has hung over the peninsula for decades."

My question is about the article use before the noun threat. In this sentence, can I say:....and a threat of a new devastating...

What if threat is used without an article (e.g.,...and threat of a new devastating...) since it appears to me that threat is an abstract noun in the sentence.

Thank you very much for your wonderful support.

Hello cbenglish,

The definite article is used here because 'threat' is not general but is defined. It is not any devastating conflict which is referenced but a specific devastating conflict: renewed conflict in the aforementioned Korean War.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sirs,

Is the use of the before the phrase 'book nerd' in the following sentence correct?

"You may not know this, but I am quite the book nerd – a voracious reader."

Since the phrase 'book nerd' appears for the first time, I feel like it should be 'a book nerd.' Am I right in my thinking, or the both will be correct?

Thank you very much.