What Are Pronouns?
PronounsA pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. For example:
Easy Examples of PronounsIn these examples, the nouns being replaced are in bold, and the pronouns are shaded:
- Jack met Jill in Boston. He first saw her in a Chinese restaurant. (In this example, the pronoun "he" replaces the noun "Jack," and the pronoun "her" replaces the noun "Jill.")
- Visitors descend on New York's Central Park. They swarm across it like locusts. (Here, the pronoun "they" replaces the noun "visitors," and the pronoun "it" replaces the noun phrase "New York's Central Park.")
A Video SummaryHere is a video summarizing this lesson on pronouns.
Why Do We Need Pronouns?Pronouns provide brevity. They prevent us from having to repeat the nouns. Imagine how wearisome a long prose would be if writers had to use the full nouns every time.
The Antecedent of a PronounWe can't talk about pronouns without mentioning antecedents. The antecedent of a pronoun is the noun, noun phrase, or noun clause being replaced by the pronoun.
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So, in all the examples above and these next ones, the words in bold are the antecedents of pronouns.
- Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world. (Actress Marilyn Monroe) (The pronoun "she" replaces the noun phrase "a girl," which is antecedent of "she.")
- Maria loves Saturday. It is the day she gets her pocket money. ("Saturday" is the antecedent of "it." "Maria" is the antecedent of "she.")
- The 8-mile walk passes through meadows and woodland. It takes in many points of interest including the local airfield, which played an important role during World War 2. ("The 8-mile walk" is the antecedent of "it." "The local airfield" is the antecedent of "which." Unlike the others we've encountered so far, "which" isn't a personal pronoun. As you will see, the term "pronoun" covers many words, some of which do not fall easily under the description "words that replace nouns.")
Different Types of PronounFor most of us, the pronouns that leap to mind upon hearing "pronoun" are the personal pronouns (e.g., "I," "you," "he," "she," "they"), but these are just one type of pronoun.
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There are nine types:
|1||Personal pronouns||I, you, he, she, it, we, they|
|2||Possessive pronouns||mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs|
|3||Relative pronouns||which, who, that|
|4||Demonstrative pronouns||this, that, these, those|
|5||Emphatic pronouns||myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves|
|6||Reflexive pronouns||myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves|
|7||Indefinite pronouns||none, several, many, some, any, somebody, nobody|
|8||Interrogative pronouns||which, who, what|
|9||Reciprocal pronouns||each other, one another|
Let's look at each type of pronoun in turn. (I have also highlighted the key points for writers for each type.)
(1) Personal Pronouns
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A personal pronoun takes the place of people or things. The personal pronouns are "I," "you," "he," "she," "it," "we," and "they."
- Man is what he believes. (Russian playwright Anton Chekhov) ("He" takes the place of the noun "man.")
- My wife bought some batteries, but they weren't included. (Comedian Steven Wright) ("Some batteries" is the antecedent of the pronoun "they.")
(NB: This quotation plays on the idea that batteries are never included when power-powered items are bought.)
- Get the facts first, then distort them. (American author Mark Twain)
- Conscience is the only incorruptible thing about us. (Henry Fielding) (Often, the antecedent is not mentioned but understood from context. Here, the antecedent of "us" is the unstated "mankind.")
Why Should I Care about Personal Pronouns?Native English speakers nearly always use the correct personal pronouns, and there are few serious mistakes associated with them, but here are two noteworthy points.
(Point 1) The subjective pronoun "I" can't be the object of a verb or the object of a preposition.
- They found my wife and I under a snowdrift. (The subjective pronoun "I" must be the subject of a verb. Here, it's the direct object of the verb "found." It should read "They found my wife and me." Of note, however, the term "my wife and me" grates on the ear of most native English speakers, who prefer the word order "me and my wife." This is also a factor in writers opting for "my wife and I," which for many sounds more natural than "my wife and me.")
- I sent condolences from my wife and I.
- Keep this between you and I. (The term "between you and I" is always wrong.)
(Point 2) This is good stuff for learning a foreign language.Knowing personal-pronoun terminology will help with learning a foreign language. If you're a native English speaker, whether you know it or not, you currently select a personal pronoun having first determined its:
- Number. Is the personal pronoun representing something singular or plural?
- Person. Is the personal pronoun representing something in the first person, i.e, the speaker himself or a group that includes the speaker (I, we), the second person, i.e., the speaker's audience (you), or the third person, i.e., everybody else (he, she, it, they)?
- Gender. Is the personal pronoun representing something male, female or neuter?
- Case. Is the personal pronoun functioning as a subject or an object?
(2) Possessive Pronouns
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A possessive pronoun shows possession. The possessive pronouns are "mine," "yours," "his," "hers," "ours," and "theirs."
- I always check if the art across the street is better than mine. (Artist Andy Warhol)
- Humans are the only animals that have children on purpose with the exception of guppies, who like to eat theirs. (Satirist P J O'Rourke)
- Is that the Queen's hat? No, it's her crown. ("Her" replaces "the Queen." That's why it's classified as a pronoun.)
Why Should I Care about Possessive Pronouns?
Don't put an apostrophe in "yours," "hers," "ours," or "theirs."By far the most common mistake related to possessive pronouns is including an apostrophe with "yours," "hers," "ours," or "theirs." There are no apostrophes in any possessive pronouns.
- There are gods above gods. We have ours, and they have theirs. That's what's known as infinity. (French poet Jean Cocteau)
(3) Relative Pronouns
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A relative pronoun introduces a clause that describes a noun. (The clause is called an adjective clause.) The relative pronouns are "that," "which," "who," "whom," and "whose." The following relative pronouns introduce adjective clauses (underlined) that provide information necessary to identify their nouns. (Note that there are no commas.)
- Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. (President of South Africa Nelson Mandela)
- An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support. (Canadian politician John Buchan)
- The United Nations, whose membership comprises almost all the states in the world, is founded on the principle of the equal worth of every human being. (UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan)
- The man Dickens, whom the world at large thought it knew, stood for all the Victorian virtues even as his novels exposed the greed and cruelty of the Victorian age. (Author Robert Gottlieb)
Why Should I Care about Relative Pronouns?Here are the top five questions related to relative pronouns:
(Question 1) Do you put a comma before "which" or "who"?The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. This applies to all relative pronouns, not just "which" and "who." (Actually, it doesn't apply to "that," but we'll cover "that" later.) Look at these two examples using "who":
- The man who won last week’s lottery gave all his money to a donkey sanctuary.
- My neighbour, who won last week’s lottery, gave all his money to a donkey sanctuary.
- My neighbour who won last week’s lottery gave all his money to a donkey sanctuary.
- The dog which bit the postman has returned. (but Americans would dislike it)
- The dog that bit the postman has returned. (for everybody)
So, "which" can head a restrictive adjective clause (without commas) or a non-restrictive one (with commas), but, if you’re in the US, use "that" for the former.
- My dog gives a trust which / that is total. (Both options work for a restrictive adjective clause, but Americans will hate "which" being used.)
- My dog gives total trust, which /
thatis very endearing.
(Only "which" works with a non-restrictive adjective clause.)
- How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese? (Charles De Gaulle) (This translation of De Gaulle's quotation is fine, but for many "that" would've read better.)
- War should only be declared by the authority of the people, whose toils and treasures are to support its burdens, instead of the government which is to reap its fruits. (US President Madison) (The first adjective clause is non-restrictive (just "additional information" about the people). The second is restrictive (specifies the government). Get it?)
(Question 2) Can you use "whose" for inanimate things?Yes. "Who" is used for people. "Which" is used for things. "Whose" is used for people and things.
- Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. (Author Erma Bombeck) ("Whose" has been used with a person. That's normal.)
- An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come. (French poet Victor Hugo) ("Whose" has been used with something inanimate ("idea"). That's acceptable.)
(Question 3) When do you use "whom"?Here's the rule: Use "who" when it’s the subject of verb (the verb is shown in bold), otherwise use "whom."
- Never lend your car to anyone who calls you mum. ("Who" is the subject of the verb "calls.")
- Never lend your car to anyone whom you have given birth to. (Author Erma Bombeck) ("Whom" is not the subject of a verb. "You" is.)
(Question 4) Can you use "that" for people?"That," like "whose," can be used for people or things.
- The dog that bit the postman.
- The postman that bit the dog. (but not popular)
(Question 5) What's the difference between "whose" and "who's"?"Who's" is a contraction. It is short for "who is" or "who has." If you can't expand your "who's" to one of those, then use "whose."
- A weed is a plant who's virtues have never been discovered. (should be "whose")
(4) Demonstrative Pronouns
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The demonstrative pronouns are "this," "that," "these," and "those." A demonstrative pronoun can refer to something previously mentioned or to something in the speaker's surroundings (e.g., something being pointed at by the speaker).
- Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others. (Groucho Marx)
- Some people get so rich they lose all respect for humanity. That is how rich I want to be. (Comedian Rita Rudner)
Why Should I Care about Demonstrative Pronouns?When using a demonstrative pronoun, make sure your link to its antecedent is obvious. Typically in writing, the antecedent of a demonstrative pronoun is close by in the previous text. In these two examples, the links to the antecedents (shown in bold) are not ambiguous.
- My court case isn't a trial. This is a lynching. (Pathologist Jack Kevorkian)
- Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. (Playwright George Bernard Shaw) (The whole previous sentence, i.e., the idea, is the antecedent of That.)
- Liberty means responsibility. That is what most men dread. (ambiguous) (Is the antecedent of "that" the whole idea as before? It's now less clear because the antecedent could be "liberty" or "responsibility.")
- The next intake of recruits will receive four presentations on the new procedures. These are scheduled to start in mid-August. (ambiguous) (The antecedent of "these" is ambiguous. It could be "the recruits," "the presentations," or "the procedures.")
If you find yourself starting a sentence this way, ask yourself a question like "What means?," "What explains?," or "What is why?." If the answer doesn’t leap out at you, you should consider a rewrite or a demonstrative determiner and a noun to spell it out more clearly.
- The next intake of recruits will receive four presentations on the new procedures. These presentations are scheduled to start in mid-August. (clearer) (Using "These presentations" (a demonstrative determiner and a noun) makes it clear what "These" refers to.)
(5) Emphatic Pronouns
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An emphatic pronoun is paired with another noun or pronoun (shown in bold) to emphasize it. The emphatic pronouns are "myself," "yourself," "herself," "himself," "itself," "ourselves," "yourselves," and "themselves."
- The Queen herself attended the party. ("The Queen" is the noun being emphasized. "The Queen" is the antecedent of "herself.")
- Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself. ("Weiler's Law")
- Learn from others' mistakes. You won't live long enough to make them all yourself. (Anon)
Why Should I Care about Emphatic Pronouns?Using an emphatic pronoun is far slicker than bolding a word, WRITING IT IN UPPERCASE LETTERS, or underlining it. Yuk! When speaking, you can emphasize a word with your voice, so there's an alternative to using an emphatic pronoun. In writing, however, the alternatives are often unwieldy or ambiguous.
An emphatic pronoun just provides emphasis, but that's a pretty important job. It's often the reason the sentence exists.
- She will attend the reception drinks herself.
(6) Reflexive Pronouns
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A reflexive pronoun is paired with another noun or pronoun to show it is acting on itself. They have a different function to emphatic pronouns, but they're the same words ("myself," "yourself," "herself," "himself," "itself," "ourselves," "yourselves," and "themselves"). In these examples, the subject (in bold) is the antecedent of the reflexive pronoun.
- Alison does not trust herself.
- I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation. (Playwright George Bernard Shaw)
- If the world blew itself up, the last voice would an expert's saying it's impossible. (Actor Peter Ustinov)
Why Should I Care about Reflexive Pronouns?"You" can't do something to "myself"; only "I" can. The most common mistake involving reflexive pronouns is using one when the subject of the verb is not doing something to itself. (In these examples, the subjects, which are also the antecedents of the reflexive pronouns) are shown in bold.)
- He did it to myself.
- I did it to myself.
- He did it to himself.
- He insulted the doctor and myself.
- Please pass any comments to the director or myself. (This example has the implied subject "you", i.e., "Please [will you] pass any comments…". See also imperative sentence.)
- He insulted me and the doctor.
- Please pass any comments to me or the director. (Note how "me" now comes first. If it didn't, these sentences would sound awkward, and that also contributes to writers going for "myself.")
Oh, and don't write "hisself"...ever. It's "himself."
(7) Indefinite Pronouns
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An indefinite pronoun refers to a person or a thing without being specific. The most common indefinite pronouns are "any," "anyone," "anything," "each," "everybody," "everyone," "everything," "few," "many," "no one," "nobody," "none," "several," "some," "somebody," and "someone."
- A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. (Writer Mark Twain)
- I don't know anything about music. In my line, you don't have to. (Singer Elvis Presley)
- Some people have so much respect for their superiors they have none left for themselves. (Playwright George Bernard Shaw)
- Each one of us alone is worth nothing. (Revolutionary Che Guevara) (Indefinite determiners can even modify indefinite pronouns.)
More about Indefinite PronounsIndefinite pronouns can be singular or plural. Here's a list:
- Always Singular. another, anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, enough, everybody, everyone, everything, less, little, much, neither, nobody, no one, nothing, one, other, somebody, someone, and something.
- Always Plural. both, few, fewer, many, others, and several.
- Singular or Plural. all, any, more, most, none, some, and such.
Why Should I Care about Indefinite Pronouns?There are four common issues related to indefinite pronouns.
(Issue 1) "None" can be singular or plural.Your retiring English teacher might tell you that "none" is always singular, but that's outdated. "None" can be singular or plural.
- None of the students is expected to get an A.
- None of the students are expected to get As or Bs.
There's another factor. If you find yourself treating "none" as singular with a singular "they" or "their" (see Issue 4), go plural throughout.
- None of the students has done their homework. (untidy) ("None" is singular (hence "has"). Using "their" is acceptable, but it's untidy.)
- None of the students have done their homework. (tidy) ("None" is plural (hence "have"). Using "their" is natural. This is tidy.)
(Issue 2) "Either" and "neither" are singular.Even though the pronouns "either" and "neither" naturally refer to two things, treat them as singular.
- Either of the brothers are welcome to attend. ("Either" is singular. It should be "is welcome to attend.")
- Men's anger about religion is like two men quarrelling over a lady neither of them care for. (1st Earl of Halifax Edward Wood) ("Neither" is singular. It should be "neither of them cares for.")
(Issue 3) Some indefinite pronouns (e.g., "all," "some") can be singular or plural.The indefinite pronouns "all," "any," "more," "most," and "some" are singular when they refer to something singular but plural when they refer to something plural.
- More of them were needed. ("Them" is plural; therefore, "were" is correct.)
- More of it was needed. ("It" is singular; therefore, "was" is correct.)
- Most of the crowd is leaving.
- Most of the crowd are waving their national flags.
(Issue 4) Words like "someone" and "anyone" (i.e., singular indefinite pronouns that represent people) are gender neutral, but it's not always easy to keep that neutrality.The singular indefinite pronouns that represent people (e.g., "anyone," "each," "everyone," "no one," "nobody," "someone") are gender neutral. However, many other singular pronouns used for people (e.g., "his," "her," "he," "she") aren't gender neutral. We have the gender neutral "it" and "its," but they're not used for people. It's a gap in English grammar, and it can cause problems.
- No one knows what he can do till he tries. (Latin writer Publilius Syrus) (Why he? This also applies to women.)
- From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. (Revolutionary Karl Marx) (Why his?)
(Option 1) Reword and go "all plural."
- People don't know what they can do till they try.
- From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. (acceptable)
(8) Interrogative Pronouns
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An interrogative pronoun is used to ask a question. The interrogative pronouns are "what," "which," "who," "whom," and "whose."
- Which is worse, failing or never trying?
- What is originality? Undetected plagiarism. (Dean of St Paul's Cathedral William Inge)
- Whatever did you say?
- Whomsoever did you find?
Interrogative pronouns can also be used to create indirect questions (underlined).
- Do you know what this is? (The interrogative pronoun "what" heads an indirect question in a question.)
- I want to know what this is. (Here, "what" heads an indirect question in a statement.)
- Which feat is the greater? (This is not an interrogative pronoun. It's an interrogative determiner. The word "Which" modifies "feat." Therefore, it's a determiner.)
- When will the game start?
- Why is common sense seldom common practice? (Eliyahu Goldratt)
- How much coke have you got?
- How many skittles have you eaten?
- Who are you and how did you get in here?
- I'm a locksmith. And...I'm a locksmith. (from the TV series "Police Squad!") (The answer to the interrogative pronoun "who" is the noun phrase "a locksmith." The answer to the interrogative adverb "how" is the, albeit unstated, adverbial phrase "by virtue of being a locksmith." The answer to a question starting with an interrogative pronoun will be a noun, typically a person, place, or thing. The answer to an interrogative adverb will be an adverb, typically words that specify a time, place, reason, or manner.)
Why Should I Care about Interrogative Pronouns?Mistakes involving interrogatives (pronouns, determiners or adverbs) are rare, but here are two reasons to think about them.
(Reason 1) Punctuating sentences correctly.Only questions get question marks. It sounds obvious, but it's not uncommon for writers to use a question mark at the end of a non-question featuring an indirect question (underlined).
- Please tell me who told you? (This is not a question. It's a statement. It should end in a period (full stop).)
- Can you tell me who told you?
(Reason 2) Creating rhetorical questions.Interrogatives can be used to ask a rhetorical question (a question for which no answer is expected). Posing a rhetorical question is an efficient and engaging way of making a point or introducing a new idea.
- What is a weed? A weed is a plant whose virtues have never been discovered. (American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson)
- Do Europe's royal families pay their way?
(9) Reciprocal Pronouns
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A reciprocal pronoun is used to express a mutual action or relationship. The reciprocal pronouns are "each other" and "one another."
- When two people are like each other, they tend to like each other. (Author Tony Robbins)
- Gentlemen don't read each other's mail. (US Secretary of War Henry Stimson)
- Laws, like houses, lean on one another. (Statesman Edmund Burke)
Why Should I Care about Reciprocal Pronouns?There are two common questions related to reciprocal pronouns?
(Question 1) Do you write "each others'" or "each other's?"Write "each other's" and "one another's." (In other words, put the apostrophe before the "s" when you need the possessive form.)
- We drink one another's healths and spoil our own. (Author Jerome K Jerome)
(Question 2) What's the difference between "each other" and "one another"?When the antecedent of a reciprocal pronoun is two things, use "each other." When it's more than two things, use "one another."
- My dog and cat love each other.
- My dog, cat, and emu love one another.
- I think a couple should complete one another, not compete with one another. (Singer Marie Osmond)
- Friends are kind to one another's dreams. (for lots of friends)
- Friends are kind to each other's dreams. (for two friends)
- Old and young disbelieve one another's truths. (Aphorist Mason Cooley) ("Each other" could be justified if you think of two discrete groups and not lots of individuals.)