Friday, 8 April 2016

Do determiners determine? Are they like nouns, verbs, adverbs or carrots?

In a pre-SPaG test that someone has put up on twitter, a child has to answer the question 'Which word class does the word 'sunrise' belong to in "Getting up to watch the sunrise was worth the early start."

You have to choose between noun, adverb, verb and determiner.

What could be more reasonable than that?

Hold it, are noun, adverb, verb and determiner in the same order of classification? If I asked you to choose between apple, orange, banana and plant, might you not think that was at the very least a bit odd?

And, anyway, what is a determiner?

Again, back in the Stone Age, when I was at school, we didn't have determiners. The various things that come under the heading of 'determiner' each had their separate name, and we didn't necessarily think of them as linked in use, function, purpose or meaning. So, what comes under the heading of 'determiner'? Stuff that comes before nouns but which are not adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions or prepositions.

The things we used to call and they still call 'articles' - the, a, and an.
The things we used to call and they still call 'possessives' - my, your, her, his, our, their.
The things we used to call and they sill call 'demonstratives' - this and that (in the phrase 'this dog' or 'that dog'.)
The things we didn't really ever know what to call which they call 'determiners of 'amount'' or 'quantity' - both, some, each, every, any, many, all, few, none
Some others like 'other' and 'either'
The things we used to call numbers - and are still called numbers, as in one potato, two potato...etc.
(Apols if I've got any of this a bit wrong. I may have been distracted by watching Lineker talking about Leicester City. )

All these apparently 'determine' what comes after them.
Any problem with that?
Well, what about 'a' and 'an'?
They are what the grammarians themselves call 'indeterminate'. So they do the opposite of 'determining'. Not very determiner at all.
And, though it's often skated over, it's just as important in English to put no 'determiner' in front of a noun as to put one. 'It's balls' is very different from 'it's some balls' which is different from 'it's the balls'.
In other words, nothing is also a 'determiner'.

But what about from the point of view of meaning and social function?

I like the term 'possessive' because it's one of the few examples of these words referring to a world (the real world) outside of this sealed-up system of language. It says, 'We say 'my' when I want to say it's 'mine'.' And we can then talk about all the different ways we want to indicate possession. (if this seems terribly obvious, remember that in French, when you want to say 'his' or 'her' you can't. You can only say a word which can mean either 'his' or 'her' depending on context. The word 'agrees' with the gender of the word that follows it, as in 'sa mère' which can mean 'his mother' or 'her mother'. In other words languages mark 'possession' in very different ways. Fair enough.
(By the way, in America, they tend to call these 'possessive pronouns'. Don't blame me, I don't come up with these names. If you call them 'possessive pronouns' anywhere near British people who love this stuff, they may stab you.)

Anyway, for those linguists who like lumping things together according to the systems they see in front of them, whilst pretending they are doing this without incorporating meaning, 'determiner' is the handy term.

Now back to the SPaG question. Are noun, adverb and verb in the same category as 'determiner'? Or is 'article' or 'possessive' of the same order?

Does it matter?

And you can be pretty sure that at some point, an examiner or a writer of these booklets will include two determiners and ask you to decide which is the determiner.

ps, some people say that numbers aren't determiners.
pps, I'm pretty sure that we used to call both, same, each, every and the rest some kind of special 'adjective'. Someone changed that. I don't know why. Sorry.

ppps the Tories' favourite educationist and linguist, John Bald thinks that determiner is a useless concept but they don't take any notice of him anymore.

pppps - people who call these 'determiners' also have a problem when we say 'both of the boys' because in theory 'both of' is 'a determiner' . See also 'all of the girls' or 'each and every one of you' Not easy to teach that lot, huh?