Pronouns: Small but Mighty
Pronouns are clever little words that stand in for nouns to take some of the strain of naming things in sentences. Using them is often intuitive, but—as is usually the case with proper grammar—there are rules to follow to ensure they work as they're supposed to.
This guide will help you to use these sometimes small words to big effect, improving the readability and flow of your writing. Read on to get more info about their functionality. You can also upload your papers and essays to EasyBib Plus. This easy to use online tool will check your grammar for free. Additionally, you can use it to check for unintentional plagiarism. EasyBib Plus also has tool to help correctly cite sources using the most popular citations including APA format, MLA format and more.
What is a Pronoun?
The simplest way to define pronoun is that it takes the place of, or refers to, a noun or noun phrase. To understand this pronoun definition you also need to understand that a noun is a naming word given to a person, place, object, thing or idea.
Examples of Nouns List
- Person -- Sarah, woman, teacher, Mrs Smith
- Place -- New York, America, country, kitchen
- Object -- pencil, table, cake, ball
- Thing -- vacation, tennis, massage, blue
- Idea -- beauty, friendship, peace, love
Examples of Pronouns List
- Her, his, she, he, I, it, mine, me, you, yourself, myself, herself
- Any, all, both, us, no one, everybody, anything, another, that, theirs, then
- Whom, whose, which, what
Purpose of a Pronoun
When writing or talking about a person, place, object, thing or idea, repeating the name (noun) in the sentence will seem strange and clunky.
Sarah is a teacher. Sarah always wanted to be a teacher. Sarah works at a high school.
No one likes clunky sentences, so let's switch out some of the nouns.
Sarah is a teacher. She always wanted to be a teacher. She works at a high school.
They make the sentence flow much better, but be careful not to use too many or things can get confusing—which is the opposite of what you're trying to achieve.
Sarah is a teacher. She works at a high school near her house. It is large with a red door.
It could refer to the house or the school. So in this case the following works better:
Sarah is a teacher. She works at a high school near her house. Sarah's house is large with a red door.
Anything You Can Do
These useful alternative naming words can do pretty much anything that the classic noun can do. In a sentence they can act as:
Subject -- who or what is doing or being something.
- Jack threw the ball.
- He threw the ball.
Direct Object -- who or what is the action (verb) being done to.
- Jack threw the ball.
- Jack threw it.
Indirect Object -- who or what is affected by the action (verb) but is not the direct object.
- Jack threw me the ball.
Object of the Preposition -- who or what follows the preposition word (a word that shows its relationship to the phrase that comes before).
- Jack threw the ball high above him.
Good Things Come in Small Packages
You'll notice most pronoun examples are short words, but they still pack a punch as essential parts of a sentence. Fun fact: the most commonly used one is the single letter I, which also ranks as the tenth most frequently written word in the English language. The runner-up as the second most commonly used is it.
Possessive Adjective as a Pronoun
Some words perform a double function in a sentence, both replacing or referring to the noun before them and describing or modifying the noun that comes after them. These possessive adjectives include my, your, his, her, its, our, your and their.
Sarah took her dog for a walk.
Her is referring back to the noun Sarah. Her is also modifying the word dog as a possessive adjective.
Sarah and Jack took their dog for a walk.
Their is referring back to the nouns Sarah and Jack. Their is also modifying the word dog as a possessive adjective.
Most of these words are commonly accepted as having this double function. However, my remains divisive. If you're asking the question, 'Is my a pronoun?' you're likely to find some grammar experts arguing yes, while others will argue no. Of course, some of these words also straddle different pronoun categories too—just to muddy the waters a little more!
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Our Flexible Friends
Looking at our list of pronouns it's clear that they're flexible little things. They can refer to many different noun types and several fit within multiple categories (more on these later). For example, it could refer to pretty much anything:
- An experience -- It was fantastic
- An object -- It is broken
- An event -- It starts at 8pm
- A thing -- It barked loudly
- A place -- It was busy
- Or even a feeling or idea -- I made a new friend. It felt good.
This is why antecedents are very important. The antecedent is the noun or noun phrase that is mentioned before being replaced. It gives the reader a clear point of reference, ensuring that they understand which thing, object, person, place or idea the replacement word is referring to.
John likes football. He is going to a game.
The antecedent in this sentence is John. We know that he refers to John. When a sentence or section has more than one noun, we need clues to work out which noun is being referred to. These clues can include the gender, voice and whether it's singular or plural.
Sarah went to catch a train. She was running late.
In the above scenario, Sarah was running late.
Sarah went to catch a train. It was running late.
In this second scenario, the train was running late.
Pronouns and antecedents go together like a pair of gloves, or skis, or chopsticks—you can have one without the other but it doesn’t make much sense! Naturally, as grammar doesn't like to make things too easy for us, there are exceptions to this rule, which we'll come to.
The Pronoun Antecedent Agreement
As these words come in both singular and plural form, the general rule is that they should agree with the antecedent.
- Singular examples -- I, me, myself, you, he, she, it, himself, herself, itself, which, who, that.
- Plural examples -- we, us, ourselves, you, yourselves, they/them, who, which, theirs, that.
At first glance, this seems fairly simple.
- Jack took the ball that was his.
- The boys took the ball that was theirs.
A singular replaces a singular noun and a plural replaces a plural noun, right? Not quite. There are sub-rules that make this a little trickier. These are as follows:
1 and 1 = Plural
When you add two (or more) singular nouns in a sentence you're creating a plural antecedent.
Sarah and Jack took the ball that was theirs.
So far, so simple. However, adding the words each or every can flip-reverse this completely.
- The runner and swimmer took their places.
- Each runner and swimmer took his or her place.
- The runner, swimmer, dancer and soccer player took their places.
- Every runner, swimmer, dancer and soccer player took his or her place.
1 and 2 = Plural
When you add a singular and a plural noun together in a sentence, you're creating a plural antecedent.
- I bought cake and gave it to her.
- I bought flowers and gave them to her.
- I bought cake and flowers and gave them to her.
1 or 1 = ?
Things become a bit more complicated when we start adding in correlative conjunctions like either, or, neither, nor, not only and but also.
In this case, use the noun that's closest to determine whether the antecedent is plural or single.
- I offered Sarah either the chocolates or the cake (single), but it didn't tempt her.
- I offered Sarah either the cake or the chocolates (plural), but they didn't tempt her.
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Collective nouns (name of a group or collection of people or things) can be slippery when it comes to identifying whether they are a singular or plural antecedent. The rule to remember is:
When the group is acting in unison the collective noun is singular.
The team won its first match.
When members of the group are acting individually the collective noun is plural.
The team took their places on the pitch.
If that jars with you then adding the word members can take the edge off this grammar anomaly.
The team members took their places on the pitch.
As is often the case with grammar, the question 'what are pronouns?' results in a long list that splits off into various categories. Remember, some fit into more than one category.
Personal pronouns are the most common type. They usually refer to a person, except in the case of it. They come in two sub-categories: subject and object.
Subject pronouns -- the subject of the sentence usually performs the action of the verb.
- First person -- I
- Second person -- you
- Third person -- he, she, it
- First person -- we
- Second person -- you
- Third person -- they
Object pronouns -- the object of the sentence usually receives the action of the verb.
- First person -- me
- Second person -- you
- Third person -- him, her, it
- First person -- us
- Second person -- you
- Third person -- them
- I (subject) hit you (object)
- You (subject) hit me (object)
- He (subject) hit her (object)
- They (subject) hit them (object)
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The Wonder of You
You'll notice that you is a wonder word that can be objective or subjective, and singular or plural. Understanding the sentence will depend on its context.
- Subjective -- You looked at me.
- Objective -- I looked at you.
- Singular -- You looked at me -- referring to one person
- Plural -- You (all) looked at me -- referring to more than one person
Possessive pronouns refer to things or people that belong to someone or something else. For example: mine, yours, his, hers, its, our, theirs.
Because they show possession by their very nature, possessive pronouns allow you to wave goodbye to the possessive apostrophe.
- The cake was Sally's.
- The cake was hers.
- The Statue of Liberty is New York's most famous landmark.
- The Statue of Liberty is its most famous landmark.
Note the earlier section on possessive adjectives including their, your, our, its, her, his, your and my. These can also perform the function of replacing a noun in a sentence, making them one of grammar's tricky double agent words.
Sally took her cake.
Her refers to the noun Sally and also modifies the noun cake, performing a double function.
Demonstrative pronouns demonstrate the person or thing being referred to—singling it/them out from other people or things.
For example: this, that, these, those.
This is my favorite jacket.
Sarah went swimming. She enjoyed that.
Interrogatives are the detectives of the grammar world. They introduce a question that has a noun as its answer.
For example: what, which, who, what, whom, whose.
Which do you like the best?
Who is that?
Who vs Whom
Whether it's correct to use who or whom is one of grammar's biggest questions. However, the answer is surprisingly straightforward.
Who refers to the subject of a sentence.
Whom refers to the object of the verb.
Who is speaking?
He is speaking to whom?
One way to check is that who should be interchangeable with he or she. While whom should be interchangeable with him or her.
He is speaking.
He is speaking to her.
So whom isn't just a well-to-do way of saying who, after all!
It's All Relative
Relative pronouns are used to introduce a subordinate clause in a sentence (a dependent clause that gives more information, but cannot stand alone as a sentence itself). A subordinate clause introduced by a relative pronoun then becomes a relative clause.
Examples include: that, which, who, whom, what, whose.
Sarah shared her lunch with Peter, who had forgotten his.
To Comma or Not to Comma?
Whether a relative clause requires a comma in front of it is another grammar quirk that can be tricky. However, it can be mastered by remembering a simple rule:
Non-essential clause -- comma required
Sarah shared her lunch with Peter, who had forgotten his.
We know that Peter is the specific friend Sarah shared her lunch with, so the clause is not essential.
Essential clause -- no comma required
Sarah shared her lunch with a friend who had forgotten his.
The clause is essential to identify which friend Sarah shared her lunch with.
Indefinite pronouns don’t indicate the exact person or thing that they refer to. For example: anybody, either, neither, everybody, no one, someone, both, many, few, all, most, some. These are the rule-breakers of the bunch as they do not need an antecedent. In fact, they often perform the function of the antecedent in the sentence.
Both (indefinite plural) students handed in their (possessive plural) essays.
However, be extra careful with indefinites as many appear to be plural but are actually classed as singular for grammatical purposes.
Anyone (indefinite singular) can be chosen. You (personal subject singular) just need to apply.
Plural examples: Both, few, many, others, several
Singular examples: Another, everybody, no one, nothing, everyone, anybody, anyone, everything, one, anything, much, somebody, someone, neither, each, either, nobody, something
Plural or Singular: All, any, most, none and some can be singular or plural, depending on the context of the sentence.
Some of this clothing is smart. I really like it.
Some of these clothes are smart. I really like them.
Reflexive or Intensive?
Intensive and reflexive pronouns are commonly confused as they include the same words. For example: myself, himself, herself, themselves, ourselves, yourself, itself. However, these sneaky double agents have very different purposes.
Reflexive -- add self or selves to a personal pronoun to refer to the subject of the sentence.
- Sally made herself a drink.
Intensive -- function as an intensifier to their antecedent.
- Sally made the drink herself.
Intensifiers often implies an achievement or something impressive, however, they're not essential to convey the basic meaning of the sentence.
- Sally made the drink -- tells us who made the drink, so herself is unnecessary.
Reflexives are essential to convey the basic meaning of a sentence.
- Sally made a drink -- Sally could be making a drink for anyone.
- Sally made herself a drink -- herself is essential to convey the right meaning.
Reciprocals are used to convey mutual actions carried out by two or more people, where both or all are receiving the benefits or consequences at the same time. There are only two, so they should be easy to remember:
- Each other --- two people
- One another -- more than two people
- Brad and Sofia kissed each other.
- The classmates looked at one another.
No, not that kind of expletive, although they do break the grammar rules by not referring to or replacing a noun.
The two expletive pronouns examples are it and there.
Expletives in grammar function as the subject in a sentence, even if no noun is being referred to. They're also known as dummy words as they don't add any meaning to a sentence, they're merely used to aid sentence structure.
There is a pen in my pocket.
There can be used as an expletive in a singular or plural context. For example:
There is a pen in my pocket.
There are two pens in my pocket.
It is commonly used as an expletive to refer to the weather, time or distance.
It was raining.
It's a long drive.
It is nearly time for dinner.
All of these different types can be difficult to learn, especially with the category crossovers. Click for more info on each, to further your learning. You can check out other EasyBib Plus pages such as adverb, interjection, and determiner, too!
First, Second and Third Person
Now that we've looked at the different types, it's clear that many have first, second and third person voice variations. Let's look at some examples.
- First person pronouns (singular) -- I, me, my, mine, myself
- Second person -- you, yours, your, yourself
- Third person (male) -- he, him, his, himself
- Third person (female) -- she, her, hers, herself
- Third person -- it, its, itself
- First person (plural) -- we, us, our, ours, ourselves
- Second person (plural) -- you, your, yours, yourselves
- Third person (plural) -- they, them, their, theirs, themselves
Remember that some don't class my as a true pronoun
He, She and Zee
Gender pronouns such as he, him, his, himself, she, her, hers, herself obviously indicate a male or female gender.
Others are gender neutral such as I, me, mine, myself, you, yours, yourself, yourselves, it, its, itself, we, us, ours, ourselves, they, them, theirs, themselves.
As some people identify with neither or both genders, they might prefer to be referred to with gender neutral pronouns—also known as non-binary—such as they. Others may prefer to be referred to by name only.
We're also seeing new gender neutral options such as ze, xe, ve, per e/ey, ne and zie. Here are a few examples.
- He laughed.
- I called him.
- His dog barked.
- That is his.
- He likes himself.
- Ze/Zie, zir, zir, zirs, zirself
- Xe, xem, xyr, xyrs, xemself
- Ve, ver, vis, vis, verself
- Per, per, pers, pers, perself
- Ne, nem, nir, nirs, nemself
- E/ey, em, eir, eirs, emself
If you're still finding it difficult to answer the question 'what is a pronoun?', click here to read more about these key elements of the English language. They may be small but they can strengthen your writing a huge amount, cutting down on noun repetition and making your work far more readable.
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