Pronouns

Definition

Pronouns usually replace or refer to a noun. They refer to an object or person that has been previously mentioned. For example, instead of repeating the name Joanne in a sentence, we can use the pronoun she in subsequent references.

  • Joanne is working on a special project; she is very dedicated.

The words that the pronouns refer to are called antecedents. In the example above, Joanne is the antecedent. Not all pronouns have antecedents.

  • Everyone is busy right now. (Everyone does not have an antecedent in this sentence.)

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Agreement

It is important to pay attention to whom or what the pronoun refers to (the antecedent) in order to have proper agreement. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun needs to be plural as well.

  • People (antecedent) who work hard tend to be successful.

In the example above, the antecedent people is plural; therefore, the pronoun who is also plural, which means that the verb work has to be plural as well. The pronoun agrees with the antecedent, and if the pronoun is the subject, the verb has to agree with the pronoun.

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Personal Pronouns

Personal pronouns are categorized by person. Subject pronouns typically precede the verb(s), and they are the ones doing or being in the sentence. Object pronouns are after the verb, and they are the receivers of the action. Consider the following table.

Person Personal Pronoun-Subjects Personal Pronoun-Objects
1st person-singular I Me
2nd person-singular You You
3rd person-singular He/She/It Him/Her/It
1st person-plural We Us
2nd person-plural You You
3rd person-plural They Them

When we join a pronoun to a noun with and, we need to make sure the noun comes first. It is also important not use a personal pronoun-object as a subject. Consider the examples below:

Correct

Joanne and I are going out to lunch.

Incorrect

Me and Joanne are going out to lunch.

Similarly, a personal pronoun-subject cannot be used as an object, and the noun must come first. Consider the examples below:

Correct

He will discuss with Joanne and me.

Incorrect

He will discuss it with me and Joanne.

Incorrect

He will discuss it with Joanne and I.

When writing an academic paper, it is important to be neutral. Using he throughout an essay is not considered politically correct as it leaves women out of the equation. However, using he or she throughout the paper can get convoluted. To resolve this, you can simply make the noun plural: instead of writing, “A student needs time to assimilate the material so that he or she can understand it,” you could write, “Students need time to assimilate the material so that they can understand it.” If your subject must be singular, you can use the indefinite pronoun one.

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Possessive Pronouns

Possessive pronouns replace possessive noun phrases and express that an object or person belongs to or is related to someone.

  • That pen is not yours; it is mine. (Yours replaces the phrase your pen; mine replaces the phrase my pen.)
  • The little boy in the picture is not my sister’s son. Hers is a lot older. (Hers replaces the phrase my sister’s son.)

Consider the following table.

Personal Pronouns Possessive Pronouns Possessive Determiners
I Mine My (car)
You Yours Your (car)
He/She/It His/Hers/Its His/Her/Its (car)
We Ours Our (car)
You Yours Your (car)
They Theirs Their (car)

Although possessive pronouns and possessive determiners look very similar, they are used differently.

Since the function of possessive pronouns is to replace possessive noun phrases, they always stand on their own. We often use possessive pronouns to avoid unnecessary repetition in a sentence.

  • All the pies were excellent but ours was the best. (Ours stands on its own and replaces the phrase our pie.)

Possessive determiners cannot be used on their own. They must stand before a noun, and they express who owns the thing named by the noun.

  • All the pies were excellent but our pie was the best. (Our must be followed by the noun pie.)

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Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns (this/that/these/those) are used to refer to nouns that are not persons but objects located in the vicinity of the speaker (this and these) or remote from the speaker (that and those) or topics that have already been discussed, written about or introduced. This and these refer to a topic(s) that have just been discussed, written about or introduced, whereas that and those refer to topics that have not been discussed recently or to another topic as opposed to the main topic at hand. Consider the examples below.

  • Could you pass me that? (The object is out-of-reach for the speaker.)
  • This is unusable. (The object is close to the speaker.)
  • This is going to require a lot of work. (The speaker is referring to something that the group was just discussing.)
  • Those are going to have to wait. (The speaker is referring to things that have not been discussed recently or to things other than the main topics at hand.)

Consider the table below.

Proximity Singular Plural
Close This These
Far That Those

It is important to note that the same words can be used as demonstrative adjectives (also called determinants) when placed in front of a noun. When they are used as pronouns, they replace a noun(s), but when they are used as adjectives, they introduce a noun(s). Consider the examples below.

  • That technique looks difficult. (In this sentence, that is a demonstrative adjective/determinant that modifies the noun technique.)
  • That sounds harsh. (In this example, that is a demonstrative pronoun that replaces a noun and acts as the subject of the sentence.)

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Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns (who/whom/whose/that/which), unlike other pronouns, do not replace nouns or pronouns but connect parts of the sentence to a noun(s) or a pronoun(s). Deciding which one to use can be tricky. Consider the table below to figure out which one to use:

Word that comes before the pronoun Pronouns Word that follows the pronoun
General Object that Verb*/subject
Specific Object which
Person who Verb*
whom Subject
whose Possession

* Sometimes, an adverb modifies the verb, so the verb does not directly come after the pronoun. (Example: The teller, who usually helps me, is sick today.)

Consider the following examples, which will help you understand the table.

  • The cat (general) that is sitting there is quite big.
  • This 19th century vase (specific), which I bought yesterday, is quite beautiful.
  • Gina (person), who works (verb) here, is away on business.
  • Gina (person), whom I (subject) respect tremendously, is working on a special project.
  • Gina (person), whose car (possession) is broken, will not be able to come to the event.

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Indefinite Pronouns

Unlike other pronouns, indefinite pronouns do not refer to a noun that appeared previously in the text. They refer to non-specific things or beings. The following pronouns are singular even though everyone and everything refer to more than one person or object:

  • anyone
  • anybody
  • everyone
  • everything
  • someone
  • somebody
  • no one
  • nobody
  • neither
  • either
  • little

 

The word every always introduces a word that is singular; therefore, all the indefinite pronouns starting with every are singular.

  • Everyone is happy!

Even though everyone represents more than one person, it is singular because it starts with every. The verb in the sentence, is, is also singular, since everyone is the subject.

The following indefinite pronouns are plural:

  • some
  • all
  • many
  • several
  • fewer
  • most
  • both

 

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Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive pronouns (myself/yourself/himself/herself/itself/oneself/ourselves/yourselves/themselves) should only be used when you want to refer back to the subject of the sentence. Do not use it to replace the subject. When the subject consists of a pronoun and a noun, always use the first person if it is part of the subject, the second person if the first person is not part of the subject, or the third person if neither the first or second person are present. Consider the following examples:

Incorrect

Leanna and myself are going to be available next week.

Correct

We can take care of it ourselves.

Correct

Leanna and I can take care of it ourselves.

Correct

Leanna and you can take care of it yourselves.

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Exercises

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