What is a pronoun?
Pronouns are words that are used in place of nouns in a sentence. The noun being replaced is known as the antecedent of the pronoun.
We commonly use pronouns in speech and writing to avoid sounding unnatural and repetitive by reusing the same noun in a sentence multiple times. Take, for example, the following sentence:
- “John said that John wants to use the computer that belongs to John.”
The sentence is awkward because John is repeated so many times. Instead, we can use personal pronouns to stand in for the name of the antecedent to make the sentence sound more natural, as in:
- “John said that he wants to use the computer that belongs to him.”
In addition to making the sentence sound better, the pronouns provide specific information, telling us that John is in the third person. If the sentence were in the first person, it would read:
- “I said that I want to use the computer that belongs to me.”
(We never use our own names when we talk about what we’re doing in the first person, so we use the personal pronoun I instead of an antecedent.)
Categories of Pronouns
There is a wide range of different categories of pronouns that we use in everyday speech and writing. Each kind of pronoun has a unique function in a sentence; many pronouns belong to multiple categories, and can serve different purposes depending on the context. We’ll briefly summarize these categories below, but you can continue on into the chapter to learn more about each.
Personal pronouns, which we looked at briefly above, are used to represent people in a sentence. Unique among pronouns, personal pronouns experience a wide range of inflection, meaning they change form to reflect specific meaning in different contexts.
We already saw in the example above how personal pronouns can inflect according to grammatical person (first person, second person, or third person), but they also change to reflect grammatical number (singular or plural), gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), and case (subjective, objective, or possessive).
Go to each of the sub-sections of personal pronouns to learn more about all their different forms.
Reflexive pronouns are very similar in style and form to personal pronouns—so similar, in fact, that they are listed as a sub-group of personal pronouns in this guide. (They are technically not personal pronouns, but their use and the way they are formed are so similar that it is useful seeing them in direct comparison to personal pronouns.)
We use reflexive pronouns when the subject of a clause is also the object of the clause’s verb. This occurs with certain reflexive verbs. They are formed by adding “-self” (singular) or “-selves” (plural) to the end of my, your, our, him, her, it or them (as well as the indefinite pronoun one). For example:
- “I saw myself in the mirror.”
- “She imagined herself on a tropical beach.”
- “They consider themselves to be above the law.”
- “One should not concern oneself with the business of others.”
Intensive pronouns are identical to reflexive pronouns in form, but, instead of functioning as the object of a verb, they serve to emphasize or reiterate the subject’s role in the verb’s action. For instance:
- “I checked over these documents myself.”
- “The president himself will be in attendance.”
We use indefinite pronouns in place of a noun that is not being specified in the sentence. There are many different indefinite pronouns; which one we use depends on whether we are representing a noun that is a person or thing, and whether that noun is singular or plural. Some common examples include:
- “Is everyone here?”
- “I hope all is going well.”
- “Whatever you decide is fine with me.”
- “Many are coming to the show tonight.”
Demonstrative pronouns are used to indicate specific people or things and indicate whether they are a) singular or plural and b) near or not near to the speaker. The most common are this, that, these, and those. For example:
- “This isn’t mine.” (singular; nearby)
- “Give me that.” (singular; not near)
- “These are really gross.” (plural; nearby)
- “I forgot to bring those.” (plural; not near)
Interrogative pronouns are used to ask questions, functioning either as the subject or object of such sentences. There are five primary interrogative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, and what.
- “Who is coming to the party tonight?” (subject)
- “So, which will it be: $10,000, or a new sports car?” (object)
- “Could you tell me whose these are?” (subject)
- “Do you know what we’re doing here?” (object)
Relative pronouns are used to connect relative clauses (also known as adjective clauses) to the main clause in a sentence. Relative clauses either help clarify the antecedent with essential information (in which case they are known as restrictive clauses), or else give extra, nonessential information about it (in which case they are known as non-restrictive clauses).
In a relative clause, the relative pronoun functions in one of three ways: as the subject of the clause, as the object of the clause’s verb, or as a possessive determiner. For example:
- “There’s the woman who always sits next to me on the bus.” (restrictive clause; who functions as the subject)
- “The book that I wrote is being published in January.” (restrictive clause; that functions as the object of wrote)
- “The escaped giraffe, which had been on the loose for weeks, was finally captured.” (non-restrictive clause; which functions as the subject)
- “The person, whose name can’t be revealed, appeared in court today.” (non-restrictive clause; whose functions as a possessive determiner, modifying name)
We use reciprocal pronouns when two or more people both act as the subject of a verb, and both (or all) individually and equally receive the verb’s action. They can be the object of either the verb itself or a preposition used to complete the verb’s meaning.
There are two reciprocal pronouns—each other (traditionally used for two people) and one another (traditionally used for more than two people). For example:
- “Jake and I call each other every day.”
- “My neighbors and I spent a lot of time at each other’s houses when we were kids.”
“Dummy” pronouns (more technically known as expletive pronouns) are words that function grammatically as pronouns but do not have antecedents—that is, they do not replace a noun, phrase, or clause. They refer to nothing in particular, instead helping the sentence to function properly in a grammatical context. There are two dummy pronouns, there and it.
- “There is a ship in the harbor.”
- “There were flowers in the meadow.”
- “It looks like it may snow tonight.”
- “Could you tell me what time it is?”
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