A heartfelt apology: determiners – forgive me

    Published: 25 October 2016

    Martin Galway is a Teaching and Learning Adviser for English at Herts for Learning.  He has been unduly unkind about determiners for the past couple of years.

    It’s true.  Up until very recently (last Tuesday in fact, when I was preparing for some KS3 grammar CPD) I have been rather harsh in relation to the humble determiner. Harsh to the point of  labelling them “boring”  and that coming from someone who has an eternal reserve of enthusiasm for grammar and who will eventually convince everyone that grammar is a quite brilliant thing when handled well.

    For those of us that have yet to be acquainted with the particular term under discussion, we are talking here about those small, somewhat plain in appearance, words that help us to be more specific when using nouns.  They come before nouns and  at the beginning of noun phrases and help us to make clear which thing we may be referring to, its quantity or who it might belong to.  Here are a few (in bold)  for illustrative purposes, because an example or two is usually more helpful than a definition:


    To be fair, you can probably understand why I found it hard to give them any particular linguistic allure.  In fact, my training approach so far has been to play on this.  One tack that I took was to use a dinner party analogy.  Imagine if you will all of the word classes as guests at a dinner party.  Who would be your dream guest?  (Most popular choices: verbs and adjectives – the showy devils!)   Who would you least like to sit next to?  You can guess the rest.  Poor old determiners : dull as dishwater but unavoidably functional.

    As to how I might teach determiners in the classroom, I’d play on this impression and – once again – make full use of expressive oral work to provide the memory hook.  It might go like this:

    “So, determiners, eh?  Pretty dull.  We need to find a way to make them a  bit more appealing, spice them up somewhat.  Make them cheeky little numbers.  We’ve all heard the Marks and Spencer’s voiceovers and the magic they can weave on a mere ready meal?  Let’s try that…Let’s give determiners a much-needed makeover:

    [adopts most seductive, silky voice; picks up a handy object]

    “It’s not just any pencil case it’s a pencil case.”

    [Gestures to children]

    “It’s not just any group of children, it’s some children.”

    And so on

    The children laugh.  They have a go themselves.  They generally remember what a determiner is pretty well.

    Of course we go on to look at determiners in a wider sense but we’ve never really laboured it and we certainly don’t  sub-categorise with the labels in the table above (this is not a requirement).

    Only, recently  I’ve had to rethink determiners in the best possible way, as once again some recent reading has reminded me that knowledge does not have exclusive hold on power: language has a pretty sure grasp of it too.  Even the most outwardly unassuming of words.  The piece in question is this article by Lynne Murphy (Reader in Linguistics at my former stomping ground, the University of Sussex). Do give it a read.  It’s fascinating stuff.  The article explores Donald Trump’s use of the simple definite article – ‘the’ –  as a tool to marginalise whole sections of society. That’s pretty impressive for such an apparently modest word. Impressive too is the resulting pushback on social media.  The ‘dull old’ determiner as catalyst for online activism.  The photo that accompanies the article is a great choice: Trump’s pointing finger underscoring the distancing effect of his use of ‘the’, as demonstrated in the quoted volley of phrases in the second US presidential debate:

    “I’m going to help the African-Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities.”

    It’s pretty hard to dispute the sense of ‘otherness’ that this linguistic quirk conjures up.  A sense of distance between speaker and subject is established very swiftly.  Now this might present an opportunity to explore determiners in a more engaging , stimulating and important way, through exploring their use in political speech.  We might look at those that establish a sense of a collective and inclusive vision and those that seek to divide (a new blog  has now been added that provides a counterpoint for consideration). Whether that would be right for your class would be down to your knowledge of your pupils and their levels of maturity.  I’d like to think that a well-handled discussion of the issues raised in these speeches has its place in the year 6 classroom.

    If nothing else, the article has opened my eyes to a more problematic, dare I say interesting use of determiners. Setting aside Mr Trump for the time being,  it has given me pause for thought and highlighted that there are other ways in which determiners help to establish social positioning albeit on a more local, limited scale.

    Just consider the following and how the way in which they are said aloud (together with the use of facial expression, body language and tone of voice) might transform a potentially innocuous combination of words into a pointed social comment:

    You’re wearing those shoes?

    Where did you get that jumper?

    Some people!

    That’s my pen!

    Taking statements like these, I might work with my students to fashion and draft  mini-playscripts.  What other pointed use of determiners have we encountered?  What effect do they have?  Is this dependent on how they are said?  Let’s have a go. Let’s say it plainly and then let’s channel someone with a (barbed) point to make.  We could construct  a scene perhaps that trades on voice and manner to explore the social role of even very plain language.  We could take some of the examples we have generated and create social scenarios to play them out in.  We could then capture this language work in writing, and see what this adds to our developing sense of voice across upper key stage 2.  If nothing else, it might underscore the importance of subtle cues in our writing, something that will no doubt benefit our strongest writers.  In the process, we might just snag ourselves an Alan Bennett of the future.

    Determiners then:  easily underestimated;  liberally scattered; ever so useful; owed a heartfelt apology. Determiners, I apologise unreservedly.

    With thanks to Dan Clayton for sharing the article and bringing it to my attention in the first place.

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