Uses of Distributives in English

Determiners, and in particular distributive determiners, are on the list of the most common writing mistakes. These little words seem so harmless and you rarely look at them as a source of errors that might cost you a good grade. As a rule, native speakers naturally absorb the rules of using distributive determiners, but even so many of them still make mistakes in writing. For whom English is not their mother tongue it might take more conscious effort to use distributives correctly in writing and speaking.

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Determiners and Distributives: What Are They?

Before we venture into the rules of usage, it would be good to figure out what determiners and distributives are. What is the difference between them? And do we really need them at all? It is good if you already have a thick grammar book at home, which you could consult if any question arises, but if you still don’t have such book, you can find out about some amazing grammar books on our blog. And for now, we will try to be your grammar guide.

Determiners are words, which are placed before the noun phrase in order to show what the noun refers to. They are often called adjectives, however, according to Swan’s Practical English Usage they are not adjectives. For example in a sentence, this house was built last year, a word this is a determiner referring to the word house, to make a point that this particular house and not some other one was built last year. English language has dozens of determiners, such as my, this, some, either, both, much, enough, etc. All of which can be divided into different groups:

  • Definite article;
  • Indefinite articles;
  • Pronouns and possessive determiners;
  • Numbers;
  • Quantifiers;
  • Demonstratives;
  • Distributives;
  • Pre-determiners;
  • Difference words.

Today we are going to focus only on one of these groups — distributives.

Distributives are a type of determiners, which are used to refer to a group of people or objects, as well as to individual members of a group or individual objects. Their purpose is to demonstrate different ways the objects or people can be viewed individually within a group. The list of distributive determiners is not long and can be easily remembered: each, every, all, half, both, either and neither.

Place of Distributives

Along with knowing how to use distributives, it is important to be aware of their right place in the sentence. It might be obvious to you, but the proofreaders that work in our editing services, can assure you that it is not obvious for everyone. They have seen too many misplaced distributives to believe that this knowledge comes naturally to everyone. Thus, remember that distributive determiners are always placed before the noun phrase, most commonly at the beginning of the sentence. For example:

Both dancers were dressed in white. NOT Dancers both were dressed in white.

Usage of Distributives

Unlike some other types of determiners, distributives can be used only with countable nouns. And such determiners, as each and every, are used only with singular countable nouns. The following example will illustrate this rule:

Each dog had a collar with a name-tag on it. NOT Each dogs had collars with name-tags on them.

Each and Every

These two distributives have very similar meaning and can be interchanged in most of the cases. As a rule they are used with singular countable nouns. Each is used to refer to members or objects of a certain group individually, and every is used to view a group as a series of members or objects. For example:

Each driver received a map with a destination point;

It is every child’s dream to get into a fairy tale;

He took every chance as a last one.

It is also possible to use each with plural nouns and pronouns, but only if it is followed by ‘of’. The same option cannot be applied to every. For example:

Each of the dresses had different embroidery;

Mother cooked special meals for each of us.


All can be used as a distributive in order to refer to the group as a whole, and not to its separate members or objects. It can be used in variety of ways, each time having slightly different meaning.

It is used with countable plurals and uncountable nouns, when referring to a concept as a whole. For example:

All flowers are beautiful;

He tried all sports before he decided on skydiving.

When you add a definite article after all, it starts referring to a certain concrete group and not to an abstract concept. You can also add ‘of’ like with each with no change in meaning. For example:

All the guests looked surprised;

He has spent all of the money she sent him.

With pronouns you must always add ‘of’ after the determiner all. For example:

Did he invite all of us to the party?

Julia called all of them before leaving the country.


The distributive determiner half is used to referring to a group of members or objects as it is divided into two. It doesn’t refer to individuals. It mostly follows the same patterns as all does, with some extra ones.

Half can be used to refer to measurements. In this case it must be followed by an indefinite article. For example:

She had half a grapefruit for breakfast;

Add a half a cup of flour and stir gently.

Both, Either and Neither

The distributives both, either and neither can only be used with countable nouns. They are used to refer to couples of objects or individuals.

Both can only be used to refer to a couple of objects and cannot be applied to singular nouns. You may add ‘of’ after this distributive as well as a definite article if you want to show that it is a concrete object. For example:

Unlike him, both of his brothers were very tall;

Did you invite both of them?

Either is a distributive that expresses positivity of one of the objects. Thus it is should be used with singular noun or pronoun. However it can also refer to plural objects if it is followed by ‘of’. For example:

He loved sweets, so either cake was fine for him;

Either of the cars looks comfortable to me.

Neither is a negative distributive that implies the whole pair of objects or individuals. Since it refers to each member of a group, it must be used with singular noun or pronoun. However, a plural option is possible if you add ‘of’ after it. For example:

Neither cake tasted good;

We could afford neither of the houses.

No More Mistakes with Distributives

As it turned out, seemingly simple words like these distributives are, in fact, not so simple. If you don’t want to make any more mistakes in your writing, whether they are related to distributives or other grammatical concepts, you should ask for help form experienced editors. Royal Editing offers you such editorial assistance for a very moderate price. Moreover, on our blog you can find many different examples of academic papers, such as essays, absolutely for free.