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date: 20 April 2018


Summary and Keywords

Determiners are a nominal syntactic category distinct from both adjectives and nouns; they constitute a functional (aka closed or ‘minor’) category and they are typically located high inside the nominal phrasal structure.

From a syntactic point of view, the category of determiners is commonly understood to comprise the word classes of article, demonstrative, and quantifier, as well as non-adjectival possessives and some nominal agreement markers.

From a semantic point of view, determiners are assumed to function as quantifiers, especially within research informed by Generalized Quantifier Theory. However, this is a one-way entailment: although determiners in natural language are quantificational, their class contains only a subset of the logically possible quantifiers; this class is restricted by conservativity and other factors.

The tension between the ‘syntactic’ and the ‘semantic’ perspective on determiners results to a degree of terminological confusion: it is not always clear which lexical items the Determiner category includes or what the function of determiners is; moreover, there exists a tendency among syntacticians to view ‘Determiner’ as naming not a class, but a fixed position within a nominal phrasal template.

The study of determiners rose to prominence within grammatical theory during the ’80s both due to advances in semantic theorizing, primarily Generalized Quantifier Theory, and due to the generalization of the X' phrasal schema to functional (minor) categories. Some issues in the nature and function of determiners that have been addressed in theoretical and typological work with considerable success include the categorial status of determiners, their (non-)universality, their structural position and feature makeup, their role in argumenthood and their interaction with nominal predicates, and their relation to pronouns. Expectedly, issues in (in)definiteness, quantification, and specificity also figure prominently in research work on determiners.

Keywords: determiner, article, quantifier, Generalized Quantifier, reference, definiteness, nominal

1. Members of the Determiner Category

1.1 Articles and Quantifiers

In a large number of syntactic treatments articles are understood to be the prototypical determiners and definite articles are understood to be the prototypical articles:



Considering definite articles as the par excellence articles is founded on the solid typological observation that they are found in far more languages than indefinite articles (De Mulder & Carlier, 2011, p. 523).

Quantifiers are the other prominent members of the determiner category, including all, some, many, most, every, and so on—but not numerals. These quantifiers are conservative: their denotation is restricted to the domain of quantification of their argument, which is typically the nominal phrase.

Although both articles and quantifiers are included in the class of determiners, these two subclasses do not stand in complementary distribution; quantifiers may or may not co-occur with articles.



These ambiguous distribution facts, which however vary significantly cross-linguistically as revisited in Section 4, have led a number of researchers to posit a separate category called Quantifier, reserving the Determiner label for articles and other items that are in complementary distribution with articles.

1.2 Demonstratives, Possessives, and Pronouns

In the case of English and other Indo-European languages of Western Europe, besides articles, determiners would also include demonstratives and some possessives, which in these languages do stand in complementary distribution with articles.





Again, based on a sample of Western European languages, personal pronouns are also analyzed as belonging to the Determiner category at least since Postal (1969). Arguing that pronouns contain determiners, or that they are determiners themselves, is compatible with co-occurrence restrictions like the following, where first person plural pronoun us taking a nominal complement is contrasted with us in close apposition with a nominal phrase containing an article.



Turning to demonstratives, despite the fact that in a number of languages they may appear in complementary distribution with articles, like in (3), there are good reasons to believe they are not core determiner elements: in quite a few languages the whole class of demonstratives systematically co-occurs with articles, while demonstratives may appear very low in the nominal phrase (Panagiotidis, 2000; Grohmann & Panagiotidis, 2015). Examples of such demonstratives are given below in (6).



Perhaps one could argue that demonstratives are elements generated low in the nominal phrase that may form a dependency with the article position or even move into it, and this is a line of argumentation that seems to make sense in general, with Campbell (1996) extending this very claim even to English this book and to (3). At the same time, demonstratives do not belong to the prototypical set of determiners and will have to be set aside, while we still cater for the existence of elements like ‘demonstrative articles’ as in (3).

It is worth noting here that similar facts hold for possessives, although in this case it is well established that a number of them actually behave like adjectives; contrast the picture in (4) with (7) below.



Pronouns will also have to be excluded from the set of prototypical determiners for slightly different reasons. Although pronouns in several languages may incorporate determiners (Cardinaletti, 1994; Roehrs, 2009), it is not the case that this is necessarily so. On the contrary, whole classes of pronominals may completely lack a Determiner layer (Noguchi, 1997; Déchaine & Wiltschko, 2002) and what seems to give pronouns pronominal reference, setting them apart as a class, is that they are complex nominal structures containing a non-descriptive elementary noun, that is, a non-concept denoting one (Panagiotidis, 2002).

The above considerations leave us with a picture in which the Determiner class contains, on the one hand, conservative Quantifiers, and on the other hand, articles including demonstrative and possessive articles, as well as elements like the English Saxon genitive ’s in (3)—see also the survey in Alexiadou, Haegeman, & Stavrou (2007).

1.3 Doubling of Articles

Although articles are typically understood to head the topmost projection in the nominal domain (more on this in Section 3.1), there are a number of doubling phenomena in typologically unrelated languages that involve the occurrence of a second article-like element inside the nominal phrase. Doubling of the (definite) article is typically triggered in (some) adjectival modification contexts; however, interpretation of structures with doubled articles is different from language to language and can range from being obligatory to almost a stylistic variant.





Obligatory doubling of the article, as in (8), is customarily analyzed as a syntactic phenomenon, with one of the two articles getting inserted as a last resort strategy when the movement of an element inside the nominal phrase is independently constrained (Santelmann, 1993, for Scandinavian; D’Hulst, Coene, & Tasmowski, 2000, for Romanian and French; Dobrovie-Sorin, 2000, for Romanian and Hebrew; Shlonsky, 2004, for Hebrew), although there is detailed criticism directed towards accounting for extra articles as last resort elements, especially for Mainland Scandinavian (Delsing, 1988; Taraldsen, 1990; Hankamer & Mikkelsen, 2005).

Turning to the optional doubling of the article, as in (9), explanations tend to emphasize the semantic differences between the doubled versus the non-doubled versions, assigning distinct and different structures to monadic and doubled structures (Alexiadou & Wilder, 1998; Kolliakou, 2004; Panagiotidis & Marinis, 2011). Finally, examining the Romanian examples in (8) and (9) one cannot help but notice that Romanian doubling apparently oscillates between being obligatory and a stylistic(?) variant.

2. The Function and Interpretation of Determiners

Broadly speaking, there are two different viewpoints regarding what the fundamental function of determiners is: referential approaches and quantificational/relational approaches.

Referential approaches are typically adopted and expounded (or tacitly assumed) by syntacticians; they are primarily concerned with how determiners make nominal expressions refer and/or be arguments. Most syntactic approaches, especially those endorsing the DP-Hypothesis (see Section 3.1), consider articles to be the prototypical members of the Determiner category. As a result, the function and interpretation of determiners are understood to revolve around referentiality, (in)definiteness, and deixis.

Quantificational or relational approaches are elegantly and consistently founded on truth conditional logic and are typically favored by philosophers of language and semanticists; they are aimed at unifying all determiners as quantifying expressions. They typically take nominal quantifiers like all, some, most, and many to be the prototypical determiners. Such approaches standardly construe determiners as Generalized Quantifiers (Barwise & Cooper, 1981; see also the review in Westerståhl, 2011), and therefore understand natural language determiners, including articles, as conservative monotonic quantifiers ranging over the nominal set with which they are associated (Keenan & Stavi, 1983; Rothstein, 1988; Keenan, 1996). A complicating factor is the divergence between logical Determiners (“more than four”) and natural language Determiners, a point of tension that however has been extensively explored (Keenan, 1996).

2.1 Referential Approaches

Determiners are the category that takes nominal predicates and turns them into arguments and/or into expressions that can refer to entities or to sets in the real world: determiners saturate nominal predicates, thus enabling them to refer. Noun Phrases are predicates and/or kinds; only in the syntactic context of a determiner can they refer (Carlson, 1980; Higginbotham, 1985; Longobardi, 1994; Alexiadou, Haegeman, & Stavrou, 2007).



According to Stowell (1991), Longobardi (1994), and much subsequent work, a nominal expression is a possible argument only if it is introduced by a determiner. This is linked to the assumption that determiners are referential, that is, they make a nominal expression suitable to refer to entities in the real world. Briefly put: determiners make their nominal complement referential. This in turn is correlated in a number of ways to the features determiners encode: person and deixis, (in)definiteness, and whatever features enable them to function as quantifiers. Given that person features are non-quantificational features of indexical pronouns (first and second person pronouns) and that deictic features are non-quantificational features of demonstratives, whereas quantifiers are tacitly considered a separate subcategory, attention in much syntactic research is consequently focused on the rather tenuous relationship between (in)definiteness and the ability of an expression containing a determiner to refer.

Definiteness and specificity are crucial and much-studied issues by themselves, even when they are separated from matters of referentiality, with Lyons (1999) providing a solid overview of definiteness and Enç (1991) of specificity. Understanding definiteness and specificity is of special interest in analyzing articles because a lot of research in the area assumes articles to be the par excellence markers of (in)definiteness. Having said that, the grammatical expression of definiteness must be kept separate from that of specificity (Ihsane & Puskás, 2001), while definite articles are hardly the only way of expressing definiteness according to Abbott (2006), and even the existence of a binary [definiteness] feature is doubtful, according to Zribi-Hertz (2002).

Definiteness is standardly captured in the Russellian sense, quantificationally: as an assertion of unique existence, typically in a particular context, which introduces to the interpretation of articles factors such as contextual familiarity, mutual knowledge between speakers, and so on (Lyons, 1999). Definite articles, however, do not always encode definiteness, with similar facts holding for indefinite articles; this is the case even in those languages that possess both definite and indefinite articles.

Regarding definite articles, at least since Vergnaud and Zubizarreta (1992), who examined the role of the definite article in expressing inalienable possession, it has been well known that these can have a number of functions, which are hardly reducible to encoding definiteness. This point is illustrated with a limited sample from French and English (11).



In the examples above, what looks like a definite article is respectively used:

  • for generic statements (‘the lion’, ‘the jungle’);

  • to refer to some salient, for example, nearby, hospital;

  • due to some sort of agreement of the preposition’s complement (‘the hat’) with the higher article;

  • seemingly optionally after the quantifier all—compare with (2);

  • as part of place name—compare with (13);

  • as a regulator of theta-roles: the presence of the article in X is in (the) charge of Y provokes a switch in the theta roles between X and Y (N. Smith, personal communication)

Indefinite articles are even more elusive, in that in a number of languages they seem to be multiply ambiguous between at least two of the following: the assertion of existence, the expression of indefiniteness, individuation, and the numeral for one (cf. Diesing, 1992; Borer, 1996, chap. 7; Ludlow, 2013). Consider the following three-way ambiguous example from Modern Greek:



The emerging picture is as follows: it is very difficult to assert that the referential function of determiners stems from their encoding (in)definiteness. Restricting ourselves to articles, we are perhaps better off siding with Giusti (1995; 2002) in understanding them as grammatical elements that turn nominal expressions to arguments; however, this is not achieved by virtue of the fact that they may encode (in)definiteness, among other things. This is aptly illustrated in languages where proper names take articles, like Catalan, Modern Greek, German dialects, Frisian, etcetera; even though the article does not encode definiteness, it is needed when the name is an argument, as seen in (13).



Given that, after all, at the core of definiteness lies the assertion of unique existence, definite articles behave as quantifiers when they actually encode definiteness anyway. In a nutshell, when we attempt to understand the function and interpretation of determiners by focusing on articles, a rather disorderly picture emerges.

2.2 Quantificational/Relational Approaches

When talking about “semantic-oriented treatments” of what determiners are, we need to keep in mind that a number of semantic approaches to determiners seek to translate the insights from syntactic research, hence to capture determiners as type-shifters, that is, as elements that turn predicates (<e,t> type elements) into entities (<e> type elements). A review of this approach is Chierchia (1998). More generally, syntactically motivated semantic treatments of determiners examine (in)definite descriptions, generics, kind denotations, bare plurals, and proper names, departing from the classic paper by Milsark (1977) and/or adopting a ‘Carlsonian’ approach (after Carlson, 1980).

However, most semantic approaches to determiners would begin by viewing them as quantifiers. Within the framework of Generalized Quantifier Theory, natural language determiners are quantifiers; more precisely, determiners are a subclass of logically possible quantifiers, restricted by (at least) conservativity and monotonicity.

Determiners are thus conceived as relational: they denote binary relations between two sets of individuals, the set denoted by the N (recall that Noun Phrases are predicates) and, in the most straightforward cases, the set denoted by V (the Verb Phrase). Hence, a determiner is a two-place predicate. Very sketchily illustrating what it means for a determiner to be a (generalized) quantifier, a two-place predicate, consider the representations for some of them, as seen in (14).



An interesting, but often overlooked, corollary of the relational view of determiners is that it derives their argument-making function: if determiners are two-place predicates expressing a relation between a nominal and a verbal set, it follows that a verbal predicate, of which the nominal set will be the argument, is necessary for the determiner function to be fulfilled; moreover, this necessity is forced by the very interpretive nature of determiners and does not have to be stipulated. An added bonus to this linking between relational determiners as two-place predicates and argumenthood would be that relational views enable us to disconnect the argumenthood of determiners from the ill-defined notion of referentiality.

Despite their conceptual elegance, quantificational-relational approaches to determiners stumble upon the point of tension between logical determiners (quantifiers, numerals, expressions like “more than four”) and natural language determiners. Even if we leave demonstratives and pronouns out, as indicated in the beginning of this article, we can still not guarantee that conservative monotonic Generalized Quantifiers can be exclusively identified with the grammatical category ‘Determiner’. More generally, before we identify natural language determiners with the grammatical category of determiners, we need to establish whether Determiner is a unitary category and, even more crucially, whether it is universal.

2.3 Case and Articles

An additional and slightly neglected issue in the function of determiners is the close affinity between the categories of Determiner and case, especially in languages with rich case systems. To wit, in languages with both morphological case and articles, case distinctions are more likely to be made on the articles than on the nouns.



This close relation between articles and morphological case has led some syntacticians to argue that this is no mere accident of morphology but rather that it reflects a deeper connection between case and articles. Some approach this relation by arguing that articles themselves, as the highest nominal functional head, express structural Case in the nominal domain (Giusti, 1995); others posit that there exists a dedicated Kase projection dominating that of articles, and the rest of the nominal phrase (Travis & Lamontagne, 1992; Bittner & Hale, 1996), suggesting that the affinity illustrated in (15) is a matter of adjacency.

3. The Status of the Determiner Category

Although one may assert that determiners constitute a functional (aka closed or ‘minor’) category, there is much more that needs to be clarified regarding their status. Determiners were traditionally treated on a par with adjectives: as nominal adjuncts. This began to change in the mid-'80s, with the popularization of the Determiner Phrase (DP) Hypothesis.

3.1 The DP-Hypothesis

According to the DP-Hypothesis, determiners are heads projecting their own syntactic constituent. The hypothesis was built on observations that clauses and nominal phrases share several common characteristics (Brame, 1981). Such observations led a number of scholars to suggest:

  1. 1. that determiners must be understood as heads projecting phrases, a claim made possible by the generalization of the X' phrasal schema to functional (minor) categories in Fukui (1986) and Fukui and Speas (1986), and

  2. 2. that determiners, typically exemplified through articles, are the true heads of nominal phrases: nominal phrases are actually Determiner Phrases (Szabolcsi, 1984; Horrocks & Stavrou, 1987; Abney, 1987).

In this way, nouns would be to Determiner Phrases what verbs are to Complementizer Phrases (clauses): not their heads, but the lexical category at their heart. More explicitly, Determiners, typically understood as articles, are extensively understood to be exactly the nominal equivalent of Complementizers (Brame, 1981; Szabolcsi, 1984; Fukui & Speas, 1986; Horrocks & Stavrou, 1987; Travis & Lamontagne, 1992). A sketchy representation of the DP-CP homology, incorporating insights in Ritter (1991) about Num(ber), is the following (Infl stands for ‘Inflection’) as seen in (16).



3.2 Criticism for the DP-Hypothesis

Despite its status as the received analysis on the categorial status of determiners, the DP-Hypothesis has also received detailed and possibly pernicious criticism on both empirical and theoretical grounds. One point of criticism is whether determiners are indeed the heads of nominal constituents and the nominal equivalent of Complementizers (Payne, 1993; Bruening, 2009). More specifically, Bruening (2009) points out two serious problems with the DP-Hypothesis.

3.2.1 Selection

When an element selects a clause, selection is for the Complementizer, as seen in (17).



No such patterns are attested in the selection of nominal complements, as the following unattested patterns illustrate in (18).



At the same time, selectional requirements for nominals are made on the basis of lower elements inside the nominal phrase, hence gather selects for Num(ber), compared with (16), for semantic plural more precisely, as seen in (19).



3.2.2 Licensing

Complementizers determine Infl, that is, Tense in more recent syntax-theoretic terms. This is well known and it is a relation formalized in Phase Theory (Chomsky, 2001, 2004) and illustrated in (20).



Moreover, each auxiliary determines the form of the next, as seen in (21).



Actually, the V head, the verb, never determines the form of the functional elements inside its projection line.

Turning to the nominal domain, the picture is quite different: features of N and Num often decide the form of determiners. See (22).



Expanding on this second point by Bruening (2009), one may note that concord inside the nominal phrase is for gender (a feature of N), for number (a feature of Num), and for (morphological) case, which we saw is closely associated with determiners. Interestingly, however, concord is never for person, quantification, deixis, definiteness, or referentiality features also closely associated with determiners, if not borne by determiners.

A number of ways have been proposed towards explaining these asymmetries between clauses and nominal constituents. Radford (1993) suggested that nominal phrases are two-headed, whereas Szabolcsi (1994) and Giusti (1995, 2002) highlight the necessity to separate articles, which they consider the nominal equivalent of Complementizers, from ‘true’ Determiners, that is, quantifiers and (for them) demonstratives. Finally, taking quantification to be the true and defining characteristic of Determiners leads Larson (2014) to reject the Determiner-Complementizer homology completely.

It is worth noting that the above matters are further accentuated because of the adoption in syntactic theory since the ’90s of a bottom-up derivational model, Bare Phrase Structure (Chomsky, 1995), replacing older top-down templatic approaches to syntax. Bare Phrase Structure entails that we can longer avail ourselves of an abstract D-position (as in Brame, 1981; Abney, 1987) to which elements like expletive articles, demonstratives, possessives, etcetera, may be inserted in addition to the class of semantic determiners; in contemporary syntactic theory a Determiner Phrase will have to be the projection of a head belonging to the class of Determiners, and no abstract (quasi-)templatic ‘D-position’ is available.

3.3 A Discourse Position Inside the Nominal Phrase

The elements that exist in close interaction with Determiner do not restrict themselves to demonstratives and possessives—recall that in languages like English and French demonstratives are indeed article-like, as in (3) and (4).There is considerable evidence that there exists a domain inside the nominal phrase dedicated to discourse functions like Focus and Topic, situated above articles and quantifiers. This was first explicitly proposed in Aboh (2004) although empirical observations leading to identifying such a discourse-oriented position are made already in Horrocks and Stavrou (1987). Positing Focus and Topic positions at the left edge of the nominal phrase is tied to the DP-CP parallelism, recall (16), but the existence of such a position can easily be witnessed in languages like Modern Greek.



3.4 Deconstructing the DP-Hypothesis

As should have emerged from the discussion so far, despite the prominence of the DP-Hypothesis, there are a number of unresolved issues regarding determiners. In order to pinpoint them in a useful manner, let us first break down the claims packaged together under the ‘DP-Hypothesis’ rubric.

First claim: The clausal-nominal parallelism. The claim simply amounts to arguing that the nominal phrase and the clause are divided in corresponding domains (Horrocks & Stavrou, 1987; Grimshaw, 1991, 2003; Grohmann & Haegeman, 2003; Wiltschko, 2014, p. 78 et passim), for example, a tripartite division into a thematic, an agreement, and a discourse domain (Platzack, 2000; Grohmann, 2003) or a four-part division into a classification, a point-of-view, an anchoring, and a linking domain within DP (Wiltschko, 2014, chap. 2).

Second claim: determiners are nominal Complementisers. As sketched in (16), repeated below, not only are the clause and the nominal phrase understood to have identical architecture, but determiners are also understood to be nominal Complementizers (Brame, 1981; Szabolcsi, 1984; Fukui & Speas, 1986; Horrocks & Stavrou, 1987; Travis & Lamontagne, 1992). Determiners would be to nouns what Complementizers are to verbs.



The discussion of Bruening (2009) should have made clear that this is untenable: when selection and licensing facts are examined, determiners, even if understood simply as articles, hardly behave in a way reminiscent of Complementizers. Determiners as a category, and quantifiers a fortiori, are not part of a nominal discourse or linking domain, the distinct existence of which was reviewed in the previous subsection.

Third claim: determiners are nominal Inflection. Given the falsity of the second claim, one could perhaps argue that determiners are the nominal Inflection category (Abney, 1987; Grimshaw, 1991; Grimshaw, 2003). In more contemporary terms, determiners would be to nouns what Tense is to verbs, a claim explicitly defended in Wiltschko (2014, chap. 6): determiners would be the nominal equivalent of Tense. Given that nominal Tense as a grammatical category does not exist (Tonhauser, 2005, 2007; contra Nordlinger & Sadler, 2004; Lecarme, 2004) this would make sense from a conceptual point of view, especially under the relational/quantificational point of view: determiners as Generalized Quantifiers relate sets with each other just like Tense relates time intervals with each other (Von Stechow, 1995; Demirdache & Uribe-Etxebarria, 2000; Stowell, 2007). So, there is some substance in the claim that determiners are a nominal Inflection category, the equivalent of Tense. However, syntactically speaking, it is a claim very difficult to execute: relational categories like Tense or Adpositions are typically understood to mediate between their complement and their specifier (Den Dikken, 2006). As no such treatment is possible for determiners, one has to resort to rather complex solutions like the one in Larson (2014).

3.5 Articles and Quantifiers

The conclusion so far is that the syntactic status of articles, quantifiers, possessors, case markers, and the related elements has been studied intensely and fruitfully since the ’80s, with the popularization of the Determiner Phrase (DP) Hypothesis. However, the ideas

  1. a) that all of the above (and more) elements belong to the same category, Determiner, and

  2. b) that they head the nominal phrase, making nominal projections Determiner Phrases can hardly be upheld as they stand, despite the general currency the DP-Hypothesis has been enjoying.

The above issues emerge because of the desire to either take all Determiners to be the nominal equivalent of Complementizers, that is, to constitute the topmost functional layer of the nominal phrase, or for them to be all quantifiers, defining relations between predicates. It should nevertheless have so far repeatedly emerged that a fundamental tension exists between articles and quantifiers.

From a typological point of view, if articles are the prototypical determiners, then quantifiers would have to constitute a separate and distinct category; however, articles are hardly universal. At the same time, if quantifiers taking nominal complements are the prototypical determiners, these could be universal, but articles, possessive elements, and case affixes would hardly fit into this category.

Turning to the semantic viewpoint and to broader matters of interpretation, the referential approaches, which capture the interpretation of (some) articles, make little sense when applied to quantifiers, whereas only true definite articles (i.e., those denoting unique existence) may fit in the Generalized Quantifier relational approach to determiners.

More generally, seemingly pleonastic determiners in the world’s languages typically belong to the article variety, behaving not as meaningful elements but rather as grammar-internal placeholders—recall (8), (11), (13) and the discussion about them. Determiners on the quantifier side hardly seem to behave like this at all.

Finally, in languages that possess both articles and quantifiers taking nominal complements, these can clearly co-occur, as already illustrated in (2). This is hardly a local characteristic of Indo-European: Matthewson (2001) discusses evidence from Salish languages in which quantifiers take whole nominal constituents headed by articles as their complements, a fact that leads her to recast Determiner-type quantifiers also in languages like English as fitting into the very same pattern, namely as elements that take article phrases as their complements. Interestingly, similar claims have been made for the typologically unrelated Romance languages by Cardinaletti and Giusti (2006): whereas existential quantifiers (cardinals and ‘vague numerals’ like one) combine with article-less quantitative DPs, universal quantifiers combine with definite DPs—again, a pattern reminiscent of (2).



In view of all the above, it appears to be necessary to split the Determiner category into at least two separate categories: articles and quantifiers, precisely as Szabolcsi (1994) and Giusti (2002) argue. The former, articles, are primarily grammatical formatives that may be linked with definiteness and may serve to turn the nominal phrase into a referring expression. The latter, quantifiers, are relational elements, two-place predicates, which express relations between sets in genuine Generalized Quantifier fashion.

The article category would then comprise articles and article-like elements, especially of the expletive sort described in, for example, Longobardi (1994), and exemplified in (11) and (13). The article category should also include i) elements marking ‘high’ possession, that is, possessive markers like (4) but not (7), ii) ‘deictic determiners’ (Panagiotidis, 2000; Wiltschko, 2014, pp. 218–230), like in (3) (but not demonstratives like the ones in (6)), and iii) case morphology. All these deal with the external relations of the nominal phrase, so the article position might after all be correlated with discourse-related positions such as nominal focus and nominal topic, compared with (23). At this point, recall that both definiteness and specificity involve the interaction between grammar and the context, so this looks like a role suitable for the outermost discourse-related position of the nominal projection. This position could be labelled K for Kase (Travis & Lamontagne, 1992; Bittner & Hale, 1996) or simple Art for Article.

Quantifiers (labelled Q or, even, D) would include all conservative monotonic Generalized Quantifiers that take nominal complements, including all, some, many, most, every, a, etcetera. Their relational function, as extensively argued for in Larson (1999, 2014), would indeed bring them close to serving as something like the equivalent of Tense for nominals. Truly quantificational articles, that is, of the unique existence (∃!) sort, would be the result of a dependency between the Quantifier and the Article position, via movement or otherwise (I.-M. Tsimpli, personal communication). Such movement analyses could also capture in the manner of Diesing (1992) the multiple interpretations of ‘indefinite articles’ like in (12). Finally, in languages like Niuean in (28), a more fine-grained field (Zamparelli, 2000; Ihsane, 2008; Gorrie, Kellner, & Massam, 2010) for Art and Q could complete the picture.

The partition of the Determiner category into Article and Quantifier also goes hand-in-hand with Bruening’s (2009) observations on determiners not being nominal Complementizers: first, quantifiers have nothing to do either with illocutionary force or with licensing functional heads down the nominal projection line, so they are irrelevant for the CP-DP parallelism, whatever their structural position is and whichever structural interactions they participate in. Articles are not the exact equivalent of Complementizer, either: although articles appear to be the topmost nominal functional head, their function is completely different from that of the Complementizer. Whereas Complementizer contributes the illocutionary force, encodes a proposition, and introduces a ‘possible world’ domain (Wunderlich, 1996), articles

  1. i. Link noun phrases whatever is outside them and/or

  2. ii. serve as the last resort expression for φ‎-features, typically as the target of concord (Giusti, 1995, 2002; Carstens, 2000).

It would follow that articles cannot license anything. They also lack (relevant) semantic content, as they at best may encode definiteness and merely flag a nominal phrase as a referring expression, so they cannot act as targets for external selection, especially s-selection. Whatever selects a nominal constituent, say a verb, will simply bypass articles and go for the first category below the quantifier, typically Number and/or Classifier (Borer, 1996, chap. 4–6 for an execution of the Q-Num-Classifier interaction).

4. Typological Matters

4.1 The Non-Universality of Articles

As has emerged, work in grammatical theory is keen to posit a universal category Determiner. This is understandable if one considers the methodological drive to seek universals in natural language beneath the surface of morphophonological diversity and morphosyntactic vagaries. Moreover, if one subscribes to the referential approach to the function of determiners, one is expected to consider determiners as the locus of ‘referentiality’, of what turns nominal expressions from predicates or kinds into referring expressions and/or arguments.

There are two setbacks for the drive to posit a determiner category in all languages. The first is that, even within syntactic treatments, articles are perhaps not the only mechanism available to grammar for shifting the type of an expression from kind or predicate to referring expression (Chierchia, 1998). The second setback is far more serious: even a cursory look to resources like the World Atlas of Linguistics Structures (WALS; Dryer & Haspelmath, 2013) reveals that a huge number of languages lack the article word class; this is a true problem for most referential approaches, because according to them, articles are both the prototypical member of the determiner category and crucial for such approaches to work. Classic examples of article-less languages include Russian and Latin, as seen in (26).



The situation is, however, more complex than a contrast between languages with and without articles. A short sample of the variation involved can be glimpsed in Balkan, Scandinavian, Semitic, and Oceanic. In Balkan languages articles are affixal.



Moreover, as already reviewed in the discussion of (8), in Mainland Scandinavian varieties the functions typically assigned to articles are shared between an affixal element and a prenominal article in intricate ways that are subject to microvariation (Hellan, 1986; Delsing, 1988; Taraldsen, 1990), whereas in Semitic articles are doubled in the context of possession or adjectival modification (Borer, 1996; Shlonsky, 2004). Against this background, the case of Niuean, an Oceanic language, is sketched, as it is characteristic of the methodological issues that arise when claiming that Determiner is universal.

4.2 The (Non-)Universality of Determiners

When trying to establish whether a particular language possesses the syntactic category Determiner, things can be very unclear even if one looks at detailed descriptions of it. An interesting example of this situation is provided by Oceanic languages like Niuean. Niuean does not seem to encode definiteness by means of a definite article; instead it has a system of determiner-related projections, a sort of the “split-D” envisaged by Zamparelli (2000) and Ihsane (2008), in which different article functions are served by different functional elements, none of which however qualifies as “article” on its own, let alone as a definite article. What is marked as ‘article’ below concerns a marker of common versus proper noun, not a definiteness marker. Massam, Gorrie, & Kellner (2006) and Gorrie et al. (2010) provide an illustration of this state of affairs in (28).



Turning to the bigger picture regarding the variation and typology of determiners, in recent years the debate on the universality of the Determiner category revolves around four issues:



It quickly becomes apparent that the partial disparity among the four questions above is due to the terminological ambiguity of ‘determiner’ as basically articles or basically quantifiers.

Looking at the treatments of the above issues, it emerges that question a. in (29) above is an empirical one: for languages like Latin or Russian it will have to be answered in the negative; however, it is less clear whether such languages lack a Determiner category. Furthermore, even the specific question under a. in (29) can hardly be answered by merely inspecting the repertory of nominal functional elements in a given language, and the case of Niuean in (28) provides a hint of why not: in some languages there may not exist a single form identifiable as article, but an ‘article system’, instead.

If articles were indeed the prototypical determiners, then the (non-)universality issue could be quickly and easily resolved there and then: determiners are not universal. A consequence of such a view is that quantifiers and demonstratives are not determiners in some languages, while something like Chierchia’s (1998) typology and analysis will answer question b. in (29).

However, the picture cannot be that simple. The absence of articles does not necessarily entail the absence of the category Determiner, even in accounts for which articles are the prototypical determiners. For instance, Pereltsvaig (2007) argues that Russian has a fully-fledged, if article-less, Determiner Phrase; she calls upon evidence from the rigid ordering of adjectives and upon the fact that possessives, demonstratives, and quantifiers seem to be hosted by functional projections different from those hosting adjectives—consider the issues under d. in (29). Essentially, this is a line of argumentation inaugurated by Progovać (1998), where Serbo-Croatian, yet another language without articles, is claimed to possess a Determiner projection on the basis of word order asymmetries between nouns and pronouns: pronouns precede while nouns follow particular intensifying adjectives, which are assumed to be anchored to a fixed position within the nominal phrase.

This brings us to question c. in (29): departing from Serbo-Croatian, Bošković (2008, 2009) builds the radical case against determiners—not just articles—as a universal syntactic category by positing a Determiner parameter, like Chierchia (1998). He appeals to structural criteria on how such a parameter is set: if semantic determiners, like quantifiers, are not a syntactic category, then they are expected not to project specifiers. Given that under the DP-Hypothesis the specifier of the determiner projection is the edge of the nominal phrase, inducing a number of locality restrictions, the absence of the syntactic Determiner category should generally make extraction out of the nominal phrase easier in languages lacking them.



Reliance on extraction facts is not without problems, however. For instance, the equivalent of the Serbo-Croatian example above is fine in Modern Greek, a classic article language. Still, the criteria laid out by Bošković combined with careful language-specific analyses can reveal whether there is empirical evidence for a syntactic category of Determiner in each language. This is necessary for languages like Niuean, as outlined above, but also for languages like Chinese, where classifiers may perform some of the functions typically associated with determiners (Cheng & Sybesma, 1999).

The matter of whether determiners are universal becomes much more complex, however, if one subscribes to the ‘semantic’ approach of quantificational/relational determiners. Indeed, if determiners are Generalized Quantifiers, then it is impossible for them not to be universal, in the way that it is impossible to construct an event around something that is not verbal (cf. Larson, 2014).

The crucial question again is whether the syntactic category of Determiner is co-extensive to the semantic one of (conservative monotonic) Generalized Quantifier. Someone holding that determiners are not a universal category could perhaps argue that (conservative monotonic) generalized quantifiers could manifest themselves as determiners in a grammar with a +Determiner parametric setting, for example, in English, and distributed to different syntactic categories in another, say adjectives, for example, in Serbo-Croatian (Ž. Bošković, personal communication), a language with a -Determiner parametric setting. More generally, it is not an unusual state of affairs in natural language that a particular function might be grammaticalized in one grammar and could be served by lexical means in another; for example, tense is argued to be like this (for an overview, see Wiltschko, 2014, chap. 4).

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Generalized Quantifiers in Japanese, Latin, or Serbo-Croatian, etcetera, belong to the Adjective syntactic category, which once more brings us to question d. in (29). Adjectives are of course optional, typically understood as adjuncts inside the nominal phrase. Accordingly, (conservative monotonic) Generalized Quantifiers in (14), mediating between verbs and nouns, could be realized either as an obligatory category in +Determiner languages like English or as optional adjectives in -Determiner languages like Serbo-Croatian. As a consequence of this, the resulting picture with respect to how syntactic representations map onto semantic representations becomes very complicated.

One key aspect of this complication is the following: In +Determiner languages like English, adjectives would only serve as predicates to be interpreted (intersectively, e.g., blue parrot, something that is both blue and a parrot; subsectively, e.g., big ant, something that is big for an ant; or intensionally, e.g., alleged killer, someone who is a killer in at least one possible world) in exclusive combination with nouns. On the other hand, in -Determiner languages like Serbo-Croatian adjectives would serve either as predicates to be interpreted (intersectively, subsectively, or intensionally) in combination with nouns or as (conservative monotonic) Generalized Quantifiers. How will this in principle prevent lep (‘beautiful’) from being interpreted as a Generalized Quantifier or prevent a universal quantifier from being interpreted as an intersective or subsective adjective? We have either to divide adjectives into “quantifiers” and “other adjectives,” essentially reinstating the Determiner category, or to deny the relevance of Generalized Quantifiers in semantic interpretation in grammars with the -Determiner parameter setting, say the grammars of Serbo-Croatian, Japanese (Fukui, 1986), etcetera.

Summarizing, once we have subscribed to the quantificational-relational approach to determiners, the possibilities for them being radically absent from particular natural languages become severely restricted: we either have to establish them as a subcategory of a superficially more salient category, or to claim that semantic interpretation proceeds in a radically different fashion in true determiner-less languages. Having said that, even if all determiners are Generalized Quantifiers, not all natural language quantifiers are determiners: whether quantifiers can come in different forms is not an issue; see Bach, Jelinek, and Kratzer (1995) on the distinction between determiner quantifiers and adverbial ones and, more generally, on cross-linguistic variation in quantification and how such variation plays along with assumptions about Universal Grammar.

5. A Note on the Diachrony of Determiners

The received wisdom on the diachrony of articles understands them to typically emerge through the grammaticalization of demonstratives, usually of the distal demonstrative. This is already the lore of classical philologists with respect to Latin; articles may further develop into gender or grammatical class markers, as described and analyzed in Greenberg (1988); see also De Mulder and Carlier (2011) and Epstein (1993).



Although the Romance case is well known and took place sometime in the first millennium AD, the Finnish (Laury, 1997) and Slovenian (Marušič & Žaucer, 2013) processes are currently in progress, with article usages being restricted to colloquial registers. The Slovenian case is particularly interesting regarding the grammaticalization ‘cline’ leading from demonstratives to articles, because according to Marušič and Žaucer (2013) article ta has nothing (yet) to do with definiteness or specificity functional projections of the noun phrase, being a sort of adjectival article instead, reminiscent of (8) and (9). If articles develop from demonstratives, possessive articles (“elements marking ‘high’ possession”) in English, French, and German seem to typically develop from adjectival possessors (Alexiadou, 2004).

Although there are rare cases of definite articles historically developing from verbs of locution or even nouns like ‘hand’ (De Mulder & Carlier, 2011, p. 523), there is no known case of articles developing from quantifiers, which again points towards the sharp distinctness of the two categories, Article and Quantifier. It actually seems that it is easier to turn a demonstrative or a possessor marker ‘too closely’ associated with the topmost nominal category into an article than it is to turn a quantifier into an article.


I gratefully acknowledge the feedback provided by Neil Smith, Moreno Mitrović, and two anonymous reviewers. The usual disclaimers apply.

Further Reading

Alexiadou, A., Haegeman, L. M. V., & Stavrou, M. (2007). Noun Phrase in the generative perspective. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. Offers a panorama of the nominal phrase expressed in terms of the DP-Hypothesis.Find this resource:

Borer, H. (1996). The construct in review. In J. Lecarme, J. Lowenstamm, & U. Shlonsky (Eds.), Studies in Afroasiatic grammar: Papers from the second conference on Afroasiatic languages, Sophia Antipolis, 1994 (pp. 30–61). The Hague: Holland Academic Graphics. A thorough rethinking of the nominal phrase, including determiners and other nominal functional categories.Find this resource:

Bošković, Ž. (2008). What will you have, DP or NP? In E. Elfner & M. Walkow (Eds.), Proceedings of NELS 37 (pp. 101–114). Amherst, MA: GLSA. Makes the case against the universality of the Determiner category.Find this resource:

Bruening, B. (2009). Selectional asymmetries between CP and DP suggest that the DP hypothesis is wrong. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, 15(1), 26–35. Provides the most articulated criticism of the ‘nominal Complementizser’ view of determiners.Find this resource:

Carlson, G. (1980). Reference to kinds in English. New York: Garland. The classic account of determiner-less nominal phrases.Find this resource:

Cheng, L. L.-S., & Sybesma, R. (1999). Bare and not-so-bare nouns and the structure of NP. Linguistic Inquiry, 30, 509–542. Argues against treating classifiers as determiners.Find this resource:

Chierchia, G. (1998). Reference to kinds across languages. Natural Language Semantics, 6, 339–405. A much-cited work on how to do reference without determiners.Find this resource:

Enç, M. (1991). The semantics of specificity. Linguistic Inquiry, 22(1), 1–25. Provides a treatment of specificity as familiarity on behalf of the speaker.Find this resource:

Keenan, E. (1996). The semantics of determiners. In S. Lappin (Ed.), The handbook of contemporary semantic theory (pp. 41–63). Oxford: Blackwell. Provides an overview of the semantics of determiners as generalized quantifiers.Find this resource:

Larson, R. K. (2014). The projection of DP (and DegP). New York: Routledge. Offers a shell-based alternative to the DP-Hypothesis, based on shell structures and embodying the view of determiners as generalized quantifiers.Find this resource:

Longobardi, G. (1994). Reference and proper names: A theory of N-movement in syntax and logical form. Linguistic Inquiry, 25, 609–665. Popularized the link between articles and referentiality and discusses ‘expletive’ articles.Find this resource:

Lyons, C. (1999). Definiteness. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. The classic textbook on definiteness.Find this resource:

Roehrs, D. (2009). Demonstratives and definite articles as nominal auxiliaries. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins. Argues that determiners are complex elements and that articles and demonstratives are nominal auxiliaries.Find this resource:

Stowell, T. (1991). Determiners in NP and DP. In K. Leffel & D. Bouchard, Views on phrase structure (pp. 37–56). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer. Implements the idea that only Determiner Phrase can be arguments.Find this resource:

Zamparelli, R. (2000). Layers in the Determiner Phrase. New York: Garland. Breaks down the category ‘Determiner’ into a number of projections.Find this resource:


Abbott, B. (2006). Definiteness and indefiniteness. In L. R. Horn & G. L. Ward (Eds.), The handbook of pragmatics (pp. 122–150). Malden, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

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Alexiadou, A. (2004). On the development of possessive determiners. In E. Fuss & C. Trips (Eds.), Diachronic clues to synchronic grammar (pp. 31–58). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Alexiadou, A., Haegeman, L. M. V., & Stavrou, M. (2007). Noun Phrase in the generative perspective. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.Find this resource:

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Bach, E. W., Jelinek, E., & Kratzer, A. (1995). Quantification in natural languages. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.Find this resource:

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Borer, H. (1996). The construct in review. In J. Lecarme, J. Lowenstamm, & U. Shlonsky (Eds.), Studies in Afroasiatic grammar: Papers from the second conference on Afroasiatic languages, Sophia Antipolis, 1994 (pp. 30–61). The Hague: Holland Academic Graphics.Find this resource:

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Bošković, Ž. (2008). What will you have, DP or NP? In E. Elfner & M. Walkow (Eds.), Proceedings of NELS 37 (pp. 101–114). Amherst, MA: GLSA.Find this resource:

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