Being a Determinative


The determinatives of English are the little words that occur at the beginning of many noun phrases, often as a matter of grammatical necessity: words like the indefinite article a and its prevowel alter ego an, the definite article the (notoriously the most frequent word in English running text, as every cryptanalyst knows), and a bunch of other words like all, enough, every, few, little, many, much, no, some, and the demonstratives this and that. And in addition, all of the numerals. (The word determinative seems to appear first in 20th-century grammars, and may have been picked up from the French term adjectif déterminatif.)

Excluding the numerals, there are perhaps 30 or 40 determinatives in all. I can’t tell you exactly how many: Although English is the most-studied language on earth, it is not yet sufficiently explored for us to describe it definitively. Dictionaries are of no help, because they mostly follow the 18th century’s deplorable practice of failing to distinguish determinatives from adjectives. (They treat “adjective” as meaning “word that appears in noun phrases before the noun, modifying the meaning in some sort of way,” which covers the genitive pronouns her, his, its, my, our, their, and your, and some uses of just about any noun you can think of — because in sausage machine the noun sausage plays a modifier role — in addition to all the numerals, demonstratives, and quantifiers, and the real adjectives. That policy may be familiar from traditional grammar, but it reduces the term “adjective” to utter uselessness.)

But I think I know of one more determinative today than I knew of a few weeks ago, because I just discovered, to my surprise, a new determinative.

It was in The Economist, which I take to have a very high standard of writing and editing indeed. I spot an occasional one-character typo roughly every three or four months, and they are trivial. For the most part, I’m prepared to take it as the default that if something occurs in The Economist, it’s grammatical.

(For just a few of their tortured avoidances of split infinitives I would not give them that much credit, but that’s a very special case of behavior mandated by a silly paragraph in their in-house style guide; even there, their misguidedness stems from scrupulous attention to detail, trying to get every sentence phrased in what they think is the proper manner.)

Here is the sentence I happened to spot last month in which a new determinative seems to have appeared (Page 47 of the June 17th UK edition):

There is slim chance that the $603bn requested by the president will materialise, let alone the larger military build-up envisaged by Senators McCain and Thornberry.

The crucial point is the lack of the indefinite article before slim. That ought to make the phrase slim chance ungrammatical as a noun phrase on its own, just like, say, great piece of luck, or a phrase where slim has to be an adjective:

This fortunate accident is a great piece of luck for us.
*This fortunate accident is great piece of luck for us.

The car was driven by a slim woman in a blue jacket.
*The car was driven by slim woman in a blue jacket.

But instead the Economist example seems fully grammatical to me. Slim, in this context, is showing not the syntax of adjectives like great but the syntax of determinatives like no or little:

There is no chance that the $603bn requested by the president will materialize.

Searching on the web and in corpora rapidly revealed other cases. This example appeared in The Wall Street Journal in 1987:

He foresees slim chance of any closing of the Persian Gulf to oil tankers.

And my friend John Payne found that even the comparative form slimmer behaved as a determinative in some cases; he spotted this on the web:

Being a mini series the network probably will play all the episodes, but this thing has slimmer chance for a second season than Kim Kardashian trying to fit into a size zero dress!

More research is needed, as the scientists always say: It is just possible that what we are dealing with here is some special anarthrous noun-phrase construction. There are such things. (Anarthrous is a term from classical grammar, meaning something like “not have the usual definite article” — the Greeks had noticed this possibility.) For example, in He was unable to solve it, brilliant mathematician though he was the underlined noun phrase has no determinative and doesn’t need one.

But what I initially think has happened is that slim, like few and little before it, has begun to take on a second life. There are two words spelled slim now, one of them an adjective and the other a brand new determinative. You read it here first.

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