in linguistics and grammar, a pronoun (Lat: pronomen) is a pro-form that substitutes for a noun (or noun phrase) with or without a determiner, such as you and they in English. The replaced phrase is called the antecedent of the pronoun.
For example, consider the sentence "Lisa gave the coat to Phil." All three nouns in the sentence can be replaced by pronouns: "She gave it to him." If the coat, Lisa, and Phil have been previously mentioned, the listener can deduce what the pronouns she, it and him refer to and therefore understand the meaning of the sentence. However, if the sentence "She gave it to him" is the first presentation of the idea, none of the pronouns have antecedents and each pronoun is therefore ambiguous. Pronouns without antecedents are also called unprecursed pronouns.
Types of pronouns
Common types of pronouns found in the world's languages are as follows.
• Personal pronouns stand in place of the names of people or things:
o Subjective pronouns are used when the person or thing is the subject of the sentence or clause. English example: I like to eat chips, but she does not.
Second person formal and informal pronouns (T-V distinction). For example, vous and tu in French. There is no distinction in modern English, though Elizabethan English marked the distinction with "thou" (singular informal) and "you" (plural or singular formal).
Inclusive and exclusive "we" pronouns indicate whether the audience is included. There is no distinction in English.
Intensive pronouns re-emphasize a noun or pronoun that has already been mentioned. English uses the same forms as for the reflexive pronouns; for example: I did it myself (contrast reflexive use I did it to myself).
o Objective pronouns are used when the person or thing is the object of the sentence or clause. English example: John likes me but not her.
Direct and indirect object pronouns. English uses the same forms for both; for example: Mary loves him (direct object); Mary sent him a letter (indirect object).
Reflexive pronouns are used when a person or thing acts on itself. English example: John cut himself.
Reciprocal pronouns refer to a reciprocal relationship. English example: They do not like each other.
o Prepositional pronouns come after a preposition. No distinct forms exist in English; for example: An lie and Maria looked at him.
o Disjunctive pronouns are used in isolation, or in certain other special grammatical contexts. No distinct forms exist in English; for example: Who does this belong to? Me.
o Dummy pronouns are used when grammatical rules require a noun (or pronoun), but none is semantically required. English example: It is raining.
o Weak pronouns.
• Possessive pronouns are used to indicate possession or ownership.
o In strict sense, the possessive pronouns are only those that act syntactically as nouns. English example: Those clothes are mine.
o Often, though, the term "possessive pronoun" is also applied to the so-called possessive adjectives (or possessive determiners). For example, in English: I lost my wallet. They are not strictly speaking pronouns because they do not substitute for a noun or noun phrase, and as such, some grammarians classify these terms in a separate lexical category called determiners (they have a syntactic role close to that of adjectives, always qualifying a noun).
• Demonstrative pronouns distinguish the particular objects or people that are referred to from other possible candidates. English example: I'll take these.
• Indefinite pronouns refer to general categories of people or things. English example: Anyone can do that.
o Distributive pronouns are used to refer to members of a group separately, rather than collectively. English example: To each his own.
o Negative pronouns indicate the non-existence of people or things. English example: Nobody thinks that.
• Relative pronouns refer back to people or things previously mentioned. English example: People who smoke should quit now.
o Indefinite relative pronouns have some of the properties of both relative pronouns and indefinite pronouns. They have a sense of "referring back", but the person or thing to which they refer has not previously been explicitly named. English example: I know what I like.
• Interrogative pronouns ask which person or thing is meant. English example: Who did that?
o In many languages (e.g., Czech, English, French, Interlingua, Russian) the sets of relative and interrogative pronouns are nearly identical. Compare English: Who is that? (interrogative) to I know who that is. (relative).
Pronouns and determiners
Pronouns and determiners are closely related, and some linguists think pronouns are actually determiners without a noun phrase. The following chart shows their relationships in English.
Personal (1st/2nd) we we Scotsmen
Possessive ours our homeland
Demonstrative this this gentleman
Indefinite some some frogs
Interrogative who which option
Generally (but not always) pronouns stand for (pro + noun) or refer to a noun, an individual or individuals or thing or things (the pronoun's antecedent) whose identity is made clear earlier in the text. For instance, we are bewildered by writers who claim something like
• They say that eating beef is bad for you.
They is a pronoun referring to someone, but who are they? Cows? whom do they represent? Sloppy use of pronouns is unfair.
Not all pronouns will refer to an antecedent, however.
• Everyone here earns over a thousand dollars a day.
The word "everyone" has no antecedent.
The problem of agreement between a pronoun and its antecedent and between a pronoun and its verb is treated in another section on Pronoun-Antecedent Consistency. The quizzes on pronoun usage are also listed at the end of that section.
This section will list and briefly describe the several kinds of pronouns.
KINDS OF PRONOUNS: Personal || Demonstrative || Indefinite || Relative ||
Reflexive || Intensive || Interrogative || Reciprocal
Unlike English nouns, which usually do not change form except for the addition of an -s ending to create the plural or the apostrophe + s to create the possessive, personal pronouns (which stand for persons or things) change form according to their various uses within a sentence. Thus I is used as the subject of a sentence (I am happy.), me is used as an object in various ways (He hit me. He gave me a book. Do this for me.), and my is used as the possessive form (That's my car.) The same is true of the other personal pronouns: the singular you and he/she/it and the plural we, you, and they. These forms are called cases. An easily printable chart is available that shows the various Cases of the Personal Pronouns.
Personal pronouns can also be characterized or distinguished by person. First person refers to the speaker(s) or writer(s) ("I" for singular, "we" for plural). Second person refers to the person or people being spoken or written to ("you" for both singular and plural). Third person refers to the person or people being spoken or written about ("he," "she," and "it" for singular, "they" for plural). The person of a pronoun is also demonstrated in the chart Cases of the Personal Pronouns. As you will see there, each person can change form, reflecting its use within a sentence. Thus, "I" becomes "me" when used as an object ("She left me") and "my" when used in its possessive role (That's my car"); "they" becomes "them" in object form ("I like them") and "their" in possessive ("That's just their way").
When a personal pronoun is connected by a conjunction to another noun or pronoun, its case does not change. We would write "I am taking a course in Asian history"; if Talitha is also taking that course, we would write "Talitha and I are taking a course in Asian history." (Notice that Talitha gets listed before "I" does. This is one of the few ways in which English is a "polite" language.) The same is true when the object form is called for: "Professor Vendetti gave all her books to me"; if Talitha also received some books, we'd write "Professor Vendetti gave all her books to Talitha and me." For more on this, see cases of pronouns.
When a pronoun and a noun are combined (which will happen with the plural first- and second-person pronouns), choose the case of the pronoun that would be appropriate if the noun were not there.
• We students are demanding that the administration give us two hours for lunch.
• The administration has managed to put us students in a bad situation.
With the second person, we don't really have a problem because the subject form is the same as the object form, "you":
• "You students are demanding too much."
• "We expect you students to behave like adults."
Among the possessive pronoun forms, there is also what is called the nominative possessive: mine, yours, ours, theirs.
• Look at those cars. Theirs is really ugly; ours is beautiful.
• This new car is mine.
• Mine is newer than yours
The family of demonstratives (this/that/these/those/such) can behave either as pronouns or as determiners.
As pronouns, they identify or point to nouns.
• That is incredible! (referring to something you just saw)
• I will never forget this. (referring to a recent experience)
• Such is my belief. (referring to an explanation just made)
As determiners, the demonstratives adjectivally modify a noun that follows. A sense of relative distance (in time and space) can be conveyed through the choice of these pronouns/determiners:
• These [pancakes sitting here now on my plate] are delicious.
• Those [pancakes that I had yesterday morning] were even better.
• This [book in my hand] is well written;
• that [book that I'm pointing to, over there, on the table] is trash.
A sense of emotional distance or even disdain can be conveyed with the demonstrative pronouns:
• You're going to wear these?
• This is the best you can do?
Pronouns used in this way would receive special stress in a spoken sentence.
When used as subjects, the demonstratives, in either singular or plural form, can be used to refer to objects as well as persons.
• This is my father.
• That is my book.
In other roles, however, the reference of demonstratives is non-personal. In other words, when referring to students, say, we could write "Those were loitering near the entrance during the fire drill" (as long as it is perfectly clear in context what "those" refers to). But we would not write "The principal suspended those for two days"; instead, we would have to use "those" as a determiner and write "The principal suspended those students for two days."
The relative pronouns (who/whoever/which/that) relate groups of words to nouns or other pronouns (The student who studies hardest usually does the best.). The word who connects or relates the subject, student, to the verb within the dependent clause (studies). Choosing correctly between which and that and between who and whom leads to what are probably the most Frequently Asked Questions about English grammar. For help with which/that, refer to the Notorious Confusables article on those words (including the hyperlink to Michael Quinion's article on this usage and the links to relevant quizzes). Generally, we use "which" to introduce clauses that are parenthetical in nature (i.e., that can be removed from the sentence without changing the essential meaning of the sentence). For that reason, a "which clause" is often set off with a comma or a pair of commas. "That clauses," on the other hand, are usually deemed indispensable for the meaning of a sentence and are not set off with commas. The pronoun which refers to things; who (and its forms) refers to people; that usually refers to things, but it can also refer to people in a general kind of way. For help with who/whom refer to the section on Consistency. We also recommend that you take the quizzes on the use of who and whom at the end of that section.
The expanded form of the relative pronouns — whoever, whomever, whatever — are known as indefinite relative pronouns. A couple of sample sentences should suffice to demonstrate why they are called "indefinite":
• The coach will select whomever he pleases.
• He seemed to say whatever came to mind.
• Whoever crosses this line first will win the race.
What is often an indefinite relative pronoun:
• She will tell you what you need to know.
The indefinite pronouns (everybody/anybody/somebody/all/each/every/some/none/one) do not substitute for specific nouns but function themselves as nouns (Everyone is wondering if any is left.)
One of the chief difficulties we have with the indefinite pronouns lies in the fact that "everybody" feels as though it refers to more than one person, but it takes a singular verb. (Everybody is accounted for.) If you think of this word as meaning "every single body," the confusion usually disappears. The indefinite pronoun none can be either singular or plural, depending on its context. None is nearly always plural (meaning "not any") except when something else in the sentence makes us regard it as a singular (meaning "not one"), as in "None of the food is fresh." Some can be singular or plural depending on whether it refers to something countable or noncountable. Refer to the section on Pronoun Consistency for help on determining the number of the indefinite pronouns (and the number [singular/plural] of the verbs that accompany them). There is a separate section on the uses of the pronoun one.
There are other indefinite pronouns, words that double as Determiners:
enough, few, fewer, less, little, many, much, several, more, most, all, both, every, each, any, either, neither, none, some
• Few will be chosen; fewer will finish.
• Little is expected.
See the section on Pronoun Consistency for help in determining the number (singular/plural) characteristics of these pronouns.
The intensive pronouns (such as myself, yourself, herself, ourselves, themselves) consist of a personal pronoun plus self or selves and emphasize a noun. (I myself don't know the answer.) It is possible (but rather unusual) for an intensive pronoun to precede the noun it refers to. (Myself, I don't believe a word he says.)
The reflexive pronouns (which have the same forms as the intensive pronouns) indicate that the sentence subject also receives the action of the verb. (Students who cheat on this quiz are only hurting themselves. You paid yourself a million dollars? She encouraged herself to do well.) What this means is that whenever there is a reflexive pronoun in a sentence there must be a person to whom that pronoun can "reflect." In other words, the sentence "Please hand that book to myself" would be incorrect because there is no "I" in that sentence for the "myself" to reflect to (and we would use "me" instead of "myself"). A sentence such as "I gave that book to myself for Christmas" might be silly, but it would be correct.
Be alert to a tendency to use reflexive pronoun forms (ending in -self) where they are neither appropriate nor necessary. The inappropriate reflexive form has a wonderful name: the untriggered reflexive. "Myself" tends to sound weightier, more formal, than little ol' me or I, so it has a way of sneaking into sentences where it doesn't belong.
• Bob and myself I are responsible for this decision.
• These decisions will be made by myself me.
• If you have any questions, please contact myself me or Bob Jones.
When pronouns are combined, the reflexive will take either the first person
• Juanita, Carlos, and I have deceived ourselves into believing in my uncle.
or, when there is no first person, the second person:
• You and Carlos have deceived yourselves.
The indefinite pronoun (see above) one has its own reflexive form ("One must have faith in oneself."), but the other indefinite pronouns use either himself or themselves as reflexives. (There is an entire page on the pronoun one.) It is probably better to pluralize and avoid the clumsy himself or herself construction.
• No one here can blame himself or herself.
• The people here cannot blame themselves.
The interrogative pronouns (who/which/what) introduce questions. (What is that? Who will help me? Which do you prefer?) Which is generally used with more specific reference than what. If we're taking a quiz and I ask "Which questions give you the most trouble?", I am referring to specific questions on that quiz. If I ask "What questions give you most trouble"? I could be asking what kind of questions on that quiz (or what kind of question, generically, in general) gives you trouble. The interrogative pronouns also act as Determiners: It doesn't matter which beer you buy. He doesn't know whose car he hit. In this determiner role, they are sometimes called interrogative adjectives.
Like the relative pronouns, the interrogative pronouns introduce noun clauses, and like the relative pronouns, the interrogative pronouns play a subject role in the clauses they introduce:
• We know who is guilty of this crime.
• I already told the detective what I know about it.
The reciprocal pronouns are each other and one another. They are convenient forms for combining ideas. If Bob gave Alicia a book for Christmas and Alicia gave Bob a book for Christmas, we can say that they gave each other books (or that they gave books to each other).
• My mother and I give each other a hard time.
If more than two people are involved (let's say a whole book club), we would say that they gave one another books. This rule (if it is one) should be applied circumspectly. It's quite possible for the exchange of books within this book club, for example, to be between individuals, making "each other" just as appropriate as "one another."
Reciprocal pronouns can also take possessive forms:
• They borrowed each other's ideas.
• The scientists in this lab often use one another's equipment.