What Are Pronouns?

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Pronouns

A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. For example:

What are pronouns?

Easy Examples of Pronouns

In 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.")
Another example:
  • 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.")
In the last example, the pronoun "it" replaced a noun phrase ("New York's Central Park") not a single noun. Right then, let's update our definition:
Definition for Pronoun

A pronoun is a word that replaces anything functioning as a noun. This includes:
  • A Noun (a single-word noun).

    For example:
    • Playful and curious, foxes like to play with balls, and they often steal them from backyards and golf courses.
    • (Here, the pronouns "they" and "them" replace the single-word nouns "foxes" and "balls.")
  • A Noun Phrase (a multi-word noun).

    For example:
    • The arctic fox handles the cold better than most animals on Earth. It does not feel the cold until the temperature drops to –70°C.
    • (Here, the pronoun "it" replaces the noun phrase "the arctic fox.")
  • A Noun Clause (a multi-word noun with its own subject and verb).

    For example:
    • We understand why some people dislike foxes. It is because a fox will decimate a chicken coop.
    • (Here, the pronoun "it" replaces the noun clause "why people dislike foxes.")
In normal writing, most nouns appear in noun phrases because adding any word (even "a" or "the") to a noun turns it into a noun phrase. (Noun clauses are far less common.)

A Video Summary

Here 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 Pronoun

We 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.")
Here are two more examples:
  • 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 Pronoun

For 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:
Pronoun TypeExamples
1Personal pronounsI, you, he, she, it, we, they
2Possessive pronounsmine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs
3Relative pronounswhich, who, that
4Demonstrative pronounsthis, that, these, those
5Emphatic pronounsmyself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves
6Reflexive pronounsmyself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves
7Indefinite pronounsnone, several, many, some, any, somebody, nobody
8Interrogative pronounswhich, who, what
9Reciprocal pronounseach 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.)
The personal pronouns above are all subjective personal pronouns because they're the subjects of verbs. There's also the objective form of personal pronouns ("me," "him," "her," "us," "them"). The objective form is used when the pronoun is not the subject of a verb (e.g., when it's acted upon or when it follows a preposition like "in" or "near").
  • 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?
So, when you say something as simple as "We like him," your brain has whipped through that list twice, making eight decisions on personal pronouns. It's flash processing. However, when you start learning a foreign language (particularly in the classroom), this grammar processing is done far more consciously. If you understand our grammar terms, you'll absorb their language "mucho mas rapido."

(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)
Be aware that "my," "your," "his," "her," "its," "our," and "their" (called possessive adjectives in traditional grammar but possessive determiners in contemporary grammar) can also be classified as pronouns because they too replace nouns.
  • 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 following relative pronouns introduce adjective clauses that give unnecessary but interesting information about their nouns. (Note that there are commas.)
  • 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.
These two sentences are nearly identical, but one has commas and one doesn’t. It all depends whether the adjective clause (the underlined text) specifies its noun. If it does (like in the first example, where it specifies "the man"), then don’t use commas. If it doesn’t (like in the second example, where it’s just additional information about "my neighbour"), then use commas. Now look at this example:
  • My neighbour who won last week’s lottery gave all his money to a donkey sanctuary.
This is also correct. This time the adjective clause is specifying "my neighbour." We’re now talking about my lottery-winning neighbour as opposed to any neighbours who didn’t win the lottery. So, you have to think carefully about whether an adjective clause specifies or doesn’t.
Good Tip

Treat the commas like brackets. If you’d happily put brackets around the adjective clause, then use commas because the clause will just be additional information. (Similarly, if you'd happily delete the clause, then it must be just additional information.)
"That" is different. Lots of Americans, and increasingly Brits, insist on using "that" instead of "which" without a comma (i.e., when "which" heads an adjective clause that specifies its noun). Look at these examples:
  • The dog which bit the postman has returned. (but Americans would dislike it)
  • The dog that bit the postman has returned. (for everybody)
Both are correct, but some find the top one a little awkward. (When a clause specifies its noun, it's called a restrictive clause. When it’s just additional information, it’s called a non-restrictive clause.)

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 / that is very endearing.
  • (Only "which" works with a non-restrictive adjective clause.)
Had the question been "Do you put a comma before that?", the answer would've been quick. No.
  • 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.)
Here's a real-life example:
  • 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?)
Using a comma before a word like "which" is not an aesthetics thing. It's not a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants thing. It's a depends-on-the-intended-meaning thing.

(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.)
Many consider "whom" to be an obsolete word. So, if you're unsure whether to use "who" or "whom," use "who."

(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)
Try to use "who" instead of "that" with people (especially in formal writing). Some of your readers might find "that" with people a little uncouth.

(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.)
You must ensure your demonstrative pronoun's antecedent is clear. Let's imagine George Bernard Shaw had written this instead:
  • 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.")
Here's another example with an ambiguous antecedent:
  • 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.")
Such ambiguity occurs because a writer knows what the antecedent is and assumes others will spot it with the same clarity. (Unfortunately though, that clarity doesn't always shine through the words.) Ambiguity most often occurs when a writer has expressed a multi-component idea and then starts a sentence with a term like "This means…," "This explains…," or "This is why…."

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.
Note than an emphatic pronoun can be removed from a sentence without affecting the sentence's core meaning.

(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.
Most often, writers make this mistake because they think "myself" sounds more formal than "me."
  • 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.)
Here are better versions:
  • 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.")
Here's the issue. The antecedent of "myself" is always "I." If "I" isn't doing something to "myself," then "myself" is wrong. Ironically, lots of people who mistakenly use "myself," "yourself," etc. do so believing a reflexive pronoun sounds more highbrow than the correct personal pronoun ("me," "you," etc.).

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)
Do not confuse indefinite pronouns with indefinite determiners (also called quantifiers or, in traditional grammar, indefinite adjectives). Here's the difference: An indefinite pronoun stands alone. An indefinite determiner modifies a noun or a pronoun. Here are some examples with indefinite determiners (bold) and indefinite pronouns (shaded).
  • 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 Pronouns

Indefinite 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.
If your "none" best translates as "not one of," go singular. If it best translates "not any of," go plural. That's the usual advice given, but it's not great because "not any of" sounds awkward, which steers writers away from going plural with "none." Here's some more-useful advice. Follow your instincts, but, if you're still unsure, go singular.

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.)
This point gets a little more complicated when the indefinite pronoun is used with a collective noun (e.g., "crowd," "team").
  • Most of the crowd is leaving.
  • Most of the crowd are waving their national flags.
When used with a collective noun, an indefinite pronoun is singular if you envisage it representing a single body but plural if you envisage it representing individuals.

(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?)
This problem is easy to fix. There are two good options:

(Option 1) Reword and go "all plural."
  • People don't know what they can do till they try.
(Option 2) Treat "they" and "their" as singular.
  • 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)
The other, less common interrogative pronouns are the same as the ones above but with the suffix "-ever" or "-soever" (e.g., "whatever," "whichever," "whatsoever," "whichsoever"). They're used for emphasis or to show surprise.
  • Whatever did you say?
  • Whomsoever did you find?
The antecedent of an interrogative pronoun is the answer to the question.

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.)
Do not confuse interrogative pronouns with interrogative determiners (called interrogative adjectives in traditional grammar), which look the same as interrogative pronouns.
  • 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.)
Also, do not confuse interrogative pronouns with interrogative adverbs ("how," "when," "why," "where"), which are also used to ask questions. Interrogative adverbs ask about the time, place, reason, or manner an action occurs. (In these examples, the action, i.e., the verb, is shown in bold.)
  • When will the game start?
  • Why is common sense seldom common practice? (Eliyahu Goldratt)
"How" is also used to ask about amounts, quantities, and degrees.
  • How much coke have you got?
  • How many skittles have you eaten?
Let's unpick this example:
  • 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.)
Interrogative determiners and adverbs have been included here because they too have antecedents (the answers to the questions they ask). Like some other determiners, that makes them pretty pronouny (or pronominal, as they say).

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).)
Before using a question mark, make sure the sentence is a question.
  • 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)
Rhetorical questions are also useful for making a point in a non-antagonistic or diplomatic way.
  • 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)
Even though a reciprocal pronoun refers to two or more things, the possessive form is created by adding "'s" (i.e., like for the possessive form of a singular noun). Some writers, sensing the plurality of a reciprocal pronoun, feel an urge to place the apostrophe after the "s" (i.e., like for the possessive form of a plural noun). Whatever. The apostrophe goes before the "s."

(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.
Under this ruling, the following quotation is wrong:
  • I think a couple should complete one another, not compete with one another. (Singer Marie Osmond)
It's a little more complicated than that because it depends on what the writer had in mind:
  • 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.)
If you're picked up for writing "each other" instead of "one another," you might be able to defend your "each other" by claiming you had two people (or things) in mind. If you're picked up for writing "one another" with an antecedent of two, you're toast. Moreover, if you're picked up for either, you're dealing with a grammar pedant.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Try our drag-and-drop test on the different types of pronoun More about the different types of pronouns What are adjectives? What are adverbs? What are conjunctions? What are interjections? What are prepositions? What are verbs? What are nouns? The different types of nouns Demonstrative pronouns Indefinite pronouns Interrogative pronouns Personal pronouns Possessive pronouns Reciprocal pronouns Relative pronouns Reflexive pronouns