The Determiners

NOTE: THE TITLE IS INCORRECT – it should be just Determiners

If English is not your native language, then there’s a chance you’re going to struggle with determiners. In particular, when to use the words “a”, “the” and when not to use either.

Let’s try a few ways to explain how to choose them.


  • a/an – is called the indefinite article – it goes before a noun to illustrate that we mean an example of that noun – e.g. a car (one possible car) or an apple (one apple out of the many apples that may be available)
  • the – is called the definite article – it’s specifying a particular one. For example the Headteacher – meaning the particular teacher in that school who’s in charge, or the longest route – meaning the one route that was judged as the longest
  • we use no determiner when we’re talking about a global concept – humanity, laundrettes in Washington, JavaScript

Which One?

You’ve just written a noun, or an adjective noun combination. How do you know which of the determiners to use (or not to). Ask yourself which one?

This should be like a catchphrase – who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? – which one? THE one.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • This program was written in Java – which Java? the best we can say about it would be a version number or Oracle/OpenJDK… but that would imply not a determiner, but a version label… so if we’re just saying Java then clearly it’s the global concept and needs no determiner words
  • Ashley’s apples – which ones? well, the class of ones belonging to him, so ALL, so no determiner
  • Ashley bought apple – which one? It kind of depends on the context. Was there a particular apple we’ve been talking about? Probably not, so – Ashley bought an apple
  • Ashley had been talking about that apple for weeks, so Ashley bought apple – now there’s ONE – so it’s Ashley bought the apple
  • Give me apple – which one? any one? – give me an apple – a particular one? – give me the apple

The difficulty with the above examples is that it really depends on the context… but the power of the technique is that you KNOW the context. You know if it’s a particular one, any one, or the global concept.

Compared with Programming

As this is a tech blog, let’s try comparison with programming:

  • a/an – these represent items from a List/Set – we’re talking about any member of a set
  • the – this is a singleton – there’s only one of them and it’s the one
  • no determiner – this is when we’re talking about a global concept – perhaps a type – e.g. String

Now let’s cement this with three examples:

  • String[] array = { “a”, “b”}; String a = array[1];
  • String s = “a”;
  • String

The first of this declares an array and then a is an element of that array. That’s how a/an works.

The second is a particular string s – the one and only String – so we use the for it.

The last is String. String is a thing all itself, so needs no determiner – it’s a global concept.

What of Hops?

Be aware that sometimes the main noun is not the main concept. For example.

  • String is a class that stores characters
  • The String class stores characters

In the second form, the word that’s getting the is class, and there’s only ONE of them that IS String, so it’s a the form. The determiner has hopped over to a different concept – in this case the set of all classes, even though the sentence is about something that could be written with a different structure and not require it.

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