HO CHI MINH CITY UNIVERSITY OF EDUCATION
DETERMINERS IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE
A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS
Intrucstor: Nguyen Ngoc Vu
Student: Le Thi Bich Tram
In languages, a noun phrase is definitely one of the most essential parts used to
convey a certain meaning. It plays many roles in sentences such as subjects,
objects, complements, etc. A noun phrase can include mainly pre-modifiers, a
head noun and post-modifiers. And each of those also includes other smaller
parts. This paper is only focused on determiners in noun phrases of English and
Vietnamese languages. Although there are similarities between the two
languages in the way people produce noun phrases, we can easily find out some
big differences because of different culture and geography-based ways of
Before we are going to find out those things, we have to know what deternimers
are. Determiners are words used before or after nouns to clarify or to explain the
nouns. Thanks to determiners, we can figure out whether something or someone
is specific and also the quantity of nouns. In addition, we can easily distinguish
between nouns or know whom or which they belong to, etc. Because determiners
give us lot of information about the head noun, they themselves are also various
in order to inform those information. There are many types of determiners
depending on types of nouns they modify. However, what type of determiners
and what type of nouns they can go with depend on languages people are using.
III. Determiners in English
There are many determiners in English and they are categorized into the
Although there are only three articles in English, it is not that easy for a
foreigner to learn how to use them well. They are indefinite ‘a’ or ‘an’ and
Indefinite articles: ‘a’ – ‘an’
‘a’ or ‘an’ can be used if you want to talk about someone or something in
For example, ‘A husband must be the bread-winner in oriental family.’
The speaker here does not want to mention any particular man who is the
husband of any woman. It is only his idea about the role of husbands in
‘a’ – ‘an’ are also used to talk about something or someone that is not
specifically known to listeners. That is to say the nouns following ‘a’ or ‘an’ are
not mentioned before.
For example, ‘I met an honest teacher at school today’, you said to your
In this case, your mother does not know that teacher and this is the first time
you tell her about him.
It is clear that ‘a’ and ‘an’ have the same usages, but they cannot be used as
the same way. While ‘a’ is used before nouns beginning with consonants, ‘an’
is used before nouns beginning with vowels. However, learners have to pay
lot of attention so that they can work out what sounds they are.
For example, we have to say a university but an hour.
Note: we do not use an article before uncountable nouns. We cannot say ‘a
Back to the second example, if you go home the next day and continue to tell
your mother about your teacher, in this time, you cannot use ‘a’ before the
noun ‘teacher’ because this is the second time. So, what can be used here?
The answer is the definite article ‘the’.
Definite article ‘the’
‘The’ is used to talk about a particular thing or person that listeners can work
out what it is or who he/she is.
For example, ‘The teacher I told you yesterday gave me a 10 for the test,
‘The’ is used to talk about the directions of the globe such as the North, the
South, the East, and the West.
‘The’ is used to talk about rivers, oceans and seas such as the Pacific, the
Mekong River, etc.
‘The’ is used when there is only a particular thing or person in the world such
as the sun, the moon, the earth.
‘The’ does not mean ‘all’
We do not use ‘the’ in generalisations with plural and uncountable nouns. For
‘I like music.’ (not … the music.) but you can say: ‘Can you turn off the
‘She’s very interested in nature.’ is different from ‘What is the nature of his
There are four demonstratives in English. They are ‘this, that, these, those’
which are used to indicate the distance from the speaker to something or
someone psychologically or physically. We can use those four as pronouns or
adjectives. When they are used as adjectives before nouns, they are
The four demonstratives are different from each other in two ways: singular
and plural, near and far (distance)
- ‘This’: near the speaker, singular. For example, ‘This ruler is mine.’
- ‘That’: far from the speaker, singular. For example, ‘That ruler is yours.’
- ‘These’: near the speaker, plural. For example, ‘These crayons are mine.’
- ‘Those’: far from the speaker, plural. For example, ‘Those crayons are
Possessive Adjectives are words used to indicate ownership or possession, to
show that whom or which someone or something belongs to.
I my He is my brother
you your Which one is your book?
he his His English is very good
John caught her and took her
it its OMG, my doll lost its leg.
Our teacher went to paris 2
Tell them that their children
are safe now.
Besides, we can use possessive mark ‘’s’ instead of a possessive adjective if
For example, ‘This is Jenny’s pen.’ ‘Who is Dave’s child?’
People use two types of numerals before nouns. They are ordinal numbers
and cardinal numbers.
Cardinal numbers include a series of ‘one, two, three, four, five, etc.’ to
show the quantity of nouns following. For example, ‘three books’
Ordinal numbers include a series of ‘first, second, third, fouth, fifth, etc.’
to show the order of the nouns. For example, ‘the first book’
If cardinal and ordinal numbers appear in the same time before a noun, the
ordinal one will be put before the cardinal one. For example, ‘the first ten
students in the list’
Quantifiers are somehow similar to numbers in the way that they all state the
quantity of nouns but quantifiers do not indicate the correct numbers. Thanks
to quantifiers, we can answer these questions ‘How many?’ and ‘How much?’
Quantifiers can be used with plural countable nouns and uncountable nouns.
But learners must remember which type of quantifiers goes with what noun
(the agreement between nouns and quantifiers). There are three types of
quantifiers, ones used with countable nouns, ones used with uncountable
nouns and ones used with both. Here are some quantifiers:
much x I don't have much money.
many x - We bought many books yesterday.
I know few members in the class
few x - because I’ve attended the class for 3
We know a few people in the area. I
a few x -
know enough people to keep me happy.
I know little English. I am going to have
little - x
a problem getting around England.
I know a little English, at least enough to
a little - x
enough x x I have enough money.
plenty x x I have plenty of money.
There’s some mud on the carpet. I need
some x x
some people to clean it.
any x x Do you know any good jokes?
He hasn’t got any money.
6. Other Determiners
Beside articles, demonstratives, possessives and quantifiers, we also have some
other determiners, they are:
e.x: ‘One-third of the class don’t want to go to Vung Tau this year’
‘You have half an hour left, so you should be hurry up.’
- ‘Which, what, whose’ are Wh-words usually go with nouns in questions.
e.x: ‘Which size do you want, small, medium or large?’
‘What day can you meet me?’
‘Whose shoes are those?’
- ‘All, whole, every, each’
e.x: ‘All the people were tired.’
‘We go to school every day.’
‘The whole orchestra played very well.’
‘Each student got a gift on Christmas.’
IV. Determiners in Vietnamese
DETERMINERS BEFORE HEAD NOUNS
1. Aggregate words
Aggregate words are words which indicate totalities of nouns such as ‘tất cả,
hết thảy, toàn bộ, etc.’ These words can be used before
- Cardinal numbers (một, hai, ba, etc.)
- Classifiers (đàn, lũ, bộ, etc.)
- Collective nouns (quần áo, binh lính, xe cộ, etc.)
2. Cardinal numbers
Cardinal numbers: một, hai, ba… indicate the quantity of nouns and cannot
be before collective nouns. For example, we cannot say ‘hai xe cộ, ba
quần áo’, but we have to say ‘ba bộ quần áo, bốn đàn gà’. So, we usually
need a classifier when we want to show the number of the head noun.
Cardinal numbers can be used before multipliers (đôi, cặp, tá, chục). For
example, ‘một cặp, hai chục’.
In Vietnamese, quantifiers are similar to those in English. They are aslo
used to state the quantity of nouns but not exactly. Here are some
quantifiers in Vietnamse:
- Conjectural words: vài, dăm, mươi, mấy… For example, ‘vài người, dăm
ba bữa cơm’
- Distributive words: mỗi, mọi, từng… For example, ‘mỗi con mèo, từng
người’. (These words are only used before countable nouns, we cannot
say ‘từng cà phê, mỗi đường’, but we can add a unit noun before the head
noun like ‘từng thìa cà phê, mỗi muỗng đường’).
Plural articles: ‘những, các, mấy’…can be defined as articles in
Vietnamese which are used to state the plural form of nouns. Moreover,
when nouns are modified by these words, they are definite. It means that
these articles are definite ones, but they do not completely convey the
definite meaning like ‘the’ in English. We have to add a certain
demonstrative (which will be mentioned later) after the noun
For example, ‘những người đó, mấy con heo này’
Singular article: ‘một’ is a cardinal number but it is also known as an
indefinite article like ‘a’ and ‘an’ in English. For example, ‘Chúng ta cần một
cây thông noel để trang trí giáng sinh.’
5. Focus marker ‘cái’
The focus marker (từ chỉ xuất) ‘cái’ is used to index the nouns. It means its
effect is to detach or to separate the nouns from other elements to
emphasize someone or something. For example, Vietnamese usually say
‘cái con nhỏ này’ instead of ‘con nhỏ này’ to make people notice at the
Indexical ‘cái’ can appear before mass nouns with the same purpose
above. For example, ‘cái đất này, cái gỗ đó’.
DETERMINERS AFTER HEAD NOUNS
6. Ordinal numbers
Ordinal numbers/words: ‘thứ nhất, thứ hai, thứ ba, đầu tiên, sau cùng, etc.’
are used to state the order of nouns they modified and they are after head
e.x: ‘vận động viên đầu tiên, con mèo thứ hai từ trái qua’.
Vietnamese demonstratives include ‘này, kia, ấy, nọ, đó, nào, nãy.’
e.x: ‘người này’, ‘cái này’, ‘ngày kia’, ‘ông ấy’, ‘hôm nọ’, ‘gã nào’, ‘lúc nãy’
So, we can recognize that demonstratives in Vietnamese are more various
than those in English. They are combined variously with nouns of humans,
things, and time. And they are not classified into singular and plural form
because Vietnamese is an analytic language, so we do not have plural
forms of nouns. That is the reason why one noun can be followed by many
demonstratives. For example, ‘lúc đó, lúc ấy, lúc này, lúc nào, lúc nãy’
Normally, Vietnamese use the word ‘của’ to state possession. And this
word is like the possessive mark ‘’s’ in English but the positions of nouns
are quite different.
e.x: Jenny’s book – Sách của Jenny
In addition, the word ‘của’ is sometimes omitted but people still can
understand that is a possessive case.
e.x: ‘mẹ tôi’ = ‘mẹ của tôi’
‘nhà nó’ = ‘nhà của nó’
Position of English determiners in noun phrases
Pre- Article Ordinal Cardinal Adjective Sub Head Post
determiner Demonstrative number number noun noun modifier
Position of Vietnamese determiners in noun phrases
-6 -5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4
Aggreg Cardin Quanti Arti Indexi Classifi Hea Adjecti Ordin Demonstr Posses
ate al fier cle cal er d ve al ative sive
word numbe ‘cái’ (con, nou numb
r tờ, n er
V. Contrastive Analysis and Teaching implication
First of all, we can easily realize that the order of determiners in the two
languages is quite different. In English, all determiners are put before head
nouns while they are put both before and after head nouns in Vietnamese. For
instance, ordinal numbers, demonstratives and possessives go after head nouns
in Vietnamese when they all go before head nouns in English. As a result, other
sub-categories are also placed in different positions. Because of the difference of
positions, Vietnamese learners have troubles when dealing with English
determiners. They usually read what comes first of a noun phrase. So, there may
be no mistakes to tranlate the categories come before the head noun but they
tend to put some such as ordinal numerals after the head noun like what they do
in Vietnamese. For example, Vietnamese learners can translate this noun phrase
‘con mèo thứ nhất’ into English ‘the cat first’ instead of ‘the first cat’ without
recognizing the mistake. However, if they have to translate from English into
Vietnamese, they can immediately realize that there is something unsual. For
example, Vietnamese learners usually translate what come first, so they will do
like this ‘thứ nhất con mèo’, and it is completely wrong in Vietnamese then they
immediately change the phrase into ‘con mèo thứ nhất’. I can say that it is a
common mistake of Vietnamese learners based on my experience of teaching
and learning. And to deal with this trouble, teachers should be the ones who can
help students recognize those differences by using translation exercises or giving
special emphasis to noun phrases so that students will be familiar with the way
noun pharases are made in English.
Secondly, the focus marker ‘cái’ is a great significance of Vietnamese language.
It can be used before the head noun to detach the noun from other categories to
emphasize the noun phrases in sentences, or to make listeners notice that noun.
And it can be combined with a variety of nouns include both sexes, singular and
plural nouns, animals and humans. For instance, we can say ‘cái con nhỏ này’
and ‘cái thằng nhỏ này’ or ‘cái bánh này’ and ‘những cái bánh này’. There is no
focus marker in English like that. And it would be a problem for English learners
who want to learn Vietnamese. They may know this focus marker when reading
Vietnamese but have difficulty to use it fluently because there is not a case in
Thirdly, because of different linguistic typologies, determiners of the two
languages are also adjusted to agree with head nouns. We know that English is
a synthetic language while Vietnamese belongs to analytic linguistic typologies.
As a result, nouns in English can be singular or plural forms with some changes
of the root words. And this leads to the agreement between nouns and
determiners. We have determiners going with singular forms and ones going with
plural forms. For example, English people say ‘this book, these books, but not
‘this books’. That is the reason why English using is limited in some way.
People must know the rules so that they can use them correctly. On the contrary,
Vietnamese have no plural forms of nouns. They use the same word to express
both singular and plural meanings. For instance, Vietnamese people say ‘quyển
sách này, những quyển sách này’. Although Vietnamese does not have plural
forms of nouns, it still consists of some words to convey that meaning such as
‘những, các, mấy, etc’. However, nouns following those words can be still
combined with the determiners as in singular forms. So, determiners can be
combined variously with many nouns without the restriction as in English. In other
words, we can say that Vietnamese determiner combination is more flexible than
that in English. When we analize this difference, we can find out the difficulty
Vietnamese learners may face when studying English. In Vietnamese, they use
determiners somehow freely, and then they encounter troubles using English
determiners. Teachers should point out not only the meanings of English
determiners but also the rule that there are singular and plural forms of
determiners in English and help students practice the points at the beginning of
learning courses so that it can be born in their mind clearly.
The last point is about the definite and indefinite articles. It is clearly known that
there are definite and indefinite articles in English and they are used restrictedly
before head nouns. We also have indefinite articles in Vietnamese such as
numeral ‘một’, ‘những’ and they are used in the same way as in English.
However, the definite English article ‘the’ is completely strange to Vietnamese
learners. Because Vietnamese people do not concern much about the
definiteness of an object or a person, it is difficult to explain to them clearly about
the usage of the article ‘the’ which does not have the equivalent in Vietnamese.
In translation, when translating from English to Vietnamese, we encounter the
trouble. So, we have to use other Vietnamese words which can convey the
definite meaning such as some demonstratives. And to choose the correct
Vietnamese demonstratives, we also have to look back at previous texts or
words if we are in the case. For examples,
‘Yesterday I saw a man standing in front of my house for a long time. The
man wore a very strange long shirt and a big hat on his head. I wonder if
he was a wizard.’
‘Hôm qua tôi nhìn thấy một người đàn ông đứng trước nhà tôi rất lâu.
Người đàn ông đó mặc một cái áo dài rất lạ lùng và đội một chiếc mũ to
trên đầu. Tôi thắc mắc không biết ông ta có phải là một pháp sư hay
In the example, the translator use the demonstrative ‘đó’ to convey the
definiteness of the noun ‘man’ while there is no English demonstrative ‘that’ in
the English text. In teaching English, teachers may find out that students have
many difficulties of using definite and indefinite English articles. Whether one
noun is definte or indefinite or whether they have to add an article or not are
problems that teachers must be the one who clarify them to students. But the
thing is that the definiteness of nouns also depends on speakers and situations.
So, teachers should use a clear and vivid context to support their explanation so
that it will work effectively on students.
Determiners are used mostly to limit the head nouns and to make them clearer to
listeners. Their functions are almost the same through English and Vietnamese
languages. However, because of different linguistic typologies, determiners are
combined differently in the two languages. That is the reason why learners have
to adopt new rules into their languages and they also have to learn about the
target culture so that they can fluently use those determiners. Teaching about
determiners can be a challenge to teachers who do not know much about the
differences between them and cannot explain them clearly by using contexts.
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