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I am very confused about the use of articles and determiners. What I know:-

  1. If we use a count noun, we have to use either an article or pluralize it.

For examples:

  1. I need pen -> This is incorrect.
  2. I need pens -> This is correct.
  3. I need the pen -> This is correct.
  4. I need his pen -> This is correct.

So if we use articles before countable nouns, we don't need to pluralize them. But I want to know if the same rule is applied to possessive determiners also. For example:-

  1. I need his pen.
  2. I need his pens.

Is 5 also correct? Can we not pluralize countable nouns after possessive determiners too just like the articles

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    I find it ironic that your list of 4 example sentences doesn't include by far the most common version - I need a pen. Commented May 19 at 3:31
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    Only use a plural noun when you mean 'more than one'! (For example, you need several pens to distribute among a group of people.) Commented May 19 at 7:44
  • 'I need pens' is unusual without prior context; 'I need some pens' sounds more natural without such context. Commented May 19 at 15:43
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    @EdwinAshworth - that's debatable. It might vary somewhat by region, but usually the context dictates which is the more natural way to say it. Indeed, I'd say "I need pens" is the more natural one in absence of context... to such an extent that Google Ngram Viewer doesn't find "I need some pens" at all. For other similar statements, at least the "I need some..." form does occur (such as water, books, clothes, cigarettes, words, help, chairs, ideas), but for pens, it's always "I need pens".
    – Glen O
    Commented May 20 at 1:53
  • @Glen O I don't think I've ever heard "I need pens." "I need a pen", many times, sometimes without prior spoken context. . I can only imagine it being used in say a list: "I need pens, pencils, paper, a ruler, and a calculator." // I've looked at the actual examples behind the Google 3-gram results, and almost all of them have prior context (and some are lists). //// Obviously, "I need the pen" needs prior reference to license the definite article. Example sentences are often given in vacuo by submitters, which complicates answers aiming at natural-sounding sentences. Commented May 20 at 14:07

2 Answers 2

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I think you're looking at this backwards. It's not that you make the noun plural when you don't have an article. It's that you need an article when the noun is singular. The sense you are trying to convey should determine whether the noun is singular or plural. Are you talking about one thing or many?

In English, any singular noun that is not a proper name must be preceded by an article (a, the), a possessive (his, my), or a few other words (this, one). Plurals do not need an article, etc.

Thus you CANNOT say, "I want pen." You CAN say, "I want a pen" or "I want his pen" or "I want that pen".

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  • Technically plurals might not need an article or modifier, but in practice they are regularly used. For example, I would be unlikely to say "I need pens"; I'd likely say "I need some/a few pens." Commented May 19 at 10:40
  • @PeterKirkpatrick Yes, good point, perhaps I should have mentioned that. We can say "the" with a plural, like, "I need the pens". We can certainly use possessives, "I need your pens". We can't use "a", you can't say, "I need a pens".
    – Jay
    Commented May 19 at 10:46
  • I think you should really add the substance of your comment to the answer itself, but my +1 is purely for the first sentence or two. Commented May 19 at 17:37
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You need some sort of determiner preceding a singular noun. A determiner, in rough terms, is simply an adjective that “determines” what a noun specifically is, i.e., it limits the possibilities a common noun could be referring to. Articles (a, an, the) fall under this category, as do possessives (his, her, its, etc.), like in your example, and demonstratives (this, that), to name the big ones. Note that while articles can be used, they are not necessarily required.

So I need his pen is just as correct as I need a pen, I need the pen, or I need this pen.

Also: If a possessive weren’t enough on its own, how would you use his pen in the singular? Would you try to add an additional determiner, like in I need a his pen? Surely that seems improper. Possessives are themselves a form of determiner, just like articles, so they suffice.

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