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:
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.
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
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
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.
With the second person, we don't really have a
problem because the subject form is the same as the object form, "you":
Among the possessive pronoun forms, there is also what is
called the nominative possessive: mine, yours, ours, theirs.
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
I will never forget this.
(referring to a recent
Such is my belief.
(referring to an explanation just
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
sitting here now on my plate]
that I had yesterday morning]
were even better.
in my hand] is well
that I'm pointing to, over there, on the table]
A sense of emotional distance or even disdain can be conveyed
with the demonstrative pronouns:
Pronouns used in this way would receive special stress in a
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. 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
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:
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
enough, few, fewer, less, little, many, much, several,
more, most, all, both, every, each, any, either, neither, none, some
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. (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'
I, so it has a way of
sneaking into sentences where it doesn't belong.
myself I are responsible for this
These decisions will be made by
If you have any questions, please contact
myself me or Bob
When pronouns are combined, the reflexive will take either the
or, when there is no first person, the second
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. It is probably
better to pluralize and avoid the clumsy himself or herself
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:
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
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:
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