Introduction to Pronouns
Pronouns replace nouns to reduce redundancy and link phrases together to provide more information.
Identify pronouns by type
- Pronouns take the place of nouns to reduce redundancy. The noun a pronoun replaces is known as that pronoun’s antecedent.
- It is crucial to ensure that each pronoun has a clear antecedent so the reader does not get confused.
- Relative pronouns (“who,” “whom,” “whose,” “that,” “which”) are used to link subordinate clauses to the subject they describe.
- Interrogative pronouns introduce questions of identification (“who,” “whom,” “whose,” “what,” “which”).
- Demonstrative pronouns identify specific people, places, things, or ideas (e.g., “this,” “that,” “these,” “those”).
- Indefinite pronouns refer to non-specific people or things (e.g., “anyone,” “most”).
- relative clause: A subordinate clause that modifies a noun.
- subordinate clause: A clause that cannot stand alone as a sentence but that functions as a noun, adjective, or adverb in a larger sentence.
- antecedent: The noun being replaced by a pronoun.
Pronouns and Antecedents
Pronouns can be very useful when standing in for other nouns or noun phrases. They make sentences less repetitive by eliminating the need to repeat the same nouns over and over again. However, they are only useful if the reader always knows what word the pronoun is replacing—the pronoun’s antecedent. This can partly be done through word order. Don’t separate a pronoun too far from its antecedent, and don’t use a pronoun unless its antecedent has already been established.
The different types of pronouns include the following:
- personal pronouns
- possessive pronouns
- intensive and reflexive pronouns
- relative pronouns
- interrogative pronouns
- demonstrative pronouns
- indefinite pronouns
Personal pronouns refer to a specific grammatical person. “Grammatical person” means either the first-person, second-person, or third-person. The first-person refers to yourself and therefore uses the pronoun “I.” The second-person pronoun is “you,” and the third-person pronouns are “he,” “she,” “it.”
- I am going to the concert.
- You can come with me.
- She did not get a ticket before they sold out.
Possessive pronouns show ownership in relation to the pronoun. Possessive pronouns are “my,” “your,” “his,” “hers,” “its,” “ours,” “your,” and “their.” For example:
- Marvin was nervous meeting with the interviewer but shook her hand when introduced.
Reflexive and intensive pronouns take the same form but have different uses. They include “myself,” “yourself,” “himself,” “herself,” “itself,” “ourselves,” “yourselves,” and “themselves.” Reflexive pronouns “reflect” back to the subject. You know a “-self” pronoun is reflexive if the sentence wouldn’t make sense without it. For example:
- (Reflexive) The model could see himself in the reflection of the camera lens.
In contrast, an intensive pronouns provides extra emphasis, but the sentence would still make sense without it. For example:
- She finished the paper herself.
Relative pronouns link different phrases within a sentence to give more information about the people or things involved. They allow you to combine connected ideas in the same sentence rather than breaking them down into multiple ones.
Consider the difference between the following sentences:
- That man yelled at us to get off his lawn. He did not even own the property.
- The man who yelled at us to get off his lawn did not even own the property.
Both sentences communicate the same thing, but the second does a better job of connecting the two events. Similarly:
- Ruth is the store manager. She rang up my groceries.
- Ruth is the store manager who rang up my groceries.
As you can see, relative clauses can be useful in streamlining your writing and improving your flow. Be careful not to use too many of them at once, though; sentences that are too long may confuse your reader. Be sure to ask yourself whether the clause actually clarifies a sentence or makes it too long and complicated.
Types of Relative Pronouns
The main relative pronouns dealing with people are “who” (used to relate to people or creatures as subjects), “whom” (used to relate to people or creatures as subjects), and “whose” (used to relate to a possession of a person or creature).
- Person (subject): The girl who wore a yellow dress
- Person (object): The girl whom I complimented about her yellow dress
- Creature (subject): The cat who lived next door
The main relative pronouns dealing with things are “that” and “which.” “That” is used to relate to things (as both subjects and objects) when there is more than one thing you could be referring to:
- Thing (object): The desk that my mother bought
- Thing (subject): The desk that fell apart
These sentences imply that there are several different desks, and the additional information you provide—the desk that your mother bought, the desk that fell apart—is crucial to identify which of those several desks you’re talking about.
Similarly, “which” is also used to relate to things (as both subjects and objects)—but its crucial difference is that it is used when there is only one thing you could be referring to. That is to say, the reader already knows exactly which item you’re referring to; you’re just telling them more detail about that item:
- Thing (object): The desk, which my mother bought
- Thing (subject): The desk, which fell apart
In these phrases, there are not several desks that the writer could be talking about; there is only one desk, period. The writer is giving the reader the information that the desk was bought by her mother, or that it fell apart—but that information isn’t necessary for identifying the thing in the first place.
It is important to note that in sentences using “which” as a relative pronoun, a comma is needed before the word “which” for the phrase to be grammatically correct.
Relative pronouns introduce what are called subordinate clauses. Subordinate clauses are phrases within a sentence that modify the subject of the sentence. For example, in the phrase “The girl who wore a yellow dress,” the subordinate clause “who wore a yellow dress” helps to modify the subject of “the girl.” That is to say, it helps answer the question, “which girl?” Similarly, in the phrase “The desk that fell apart,” the subordinate clause “that fell apart” helps to identify which desk the writer is talking about.
Interrogative pronouns introduce questions. The main forms are “who/whom” (for people and beings), “whose” (for possessive pronouns), “what” (to introduce general questions), and “which” (for identification and comparison):
- Person or being (as subject): Who wants to go to the movies with me?
- Person or being (as object): To whom was the letter addressed?
- Possessive: Whose is that book on the table?
- General question: What time is it? What do you think of the weather today?
- Identification: Which desk are you talking about?
- Comparison: Which play do you think is better, Hamlet or King Lear?
Demonstrative pronouns point out specific people, places, things, and ideas. The main forms are “this/that” (singular) and “these/those” (plural). These pronouns can either be used for comparisons or on their own. They are also called determiners and can function as adjectives for their antecedents:
- Comparison: I would rather go to that restaurant than this one.
- Alone: I think this book is really good.
Indefinite pronouns refer to non-specific people or things. Indefinite pronouns include:
Choose your indefinite pronoun based on the number or amount of people or things you’re talking about. As always, remember to make sure that the antecedent is clear; avoid ambiguous sentence constructions in which pronouns could refer to multiple different words.
Pronouns as Subjects and Objects
Pronouns can be the subject or the object of a sentence.
Identify whether a pronoun functions as a subject or object
- Pronouns take the place of a noun and can be personal, possessive, reflexive, or intensive.
- Pronouns can be the subject or the object of a sentence.
- Using the various types of pronouns appropriately in sentences will improve your writing.
- intensive pronoun: A word that emphasizes the noun.
- possessive pronoun: A word that shows ownership.
- object pronoun: A word that is typically used as the direct or indirect object of a verb, or the object of a preposition.
- subject pronoun: A word that is used as the subject of a verb.
- reflexive pronoun: A word that refers back to the subject.
Pronouns as Subjects and Objects
In a sentence, the subject completes the action whereas the object is the recipient of that action. Pronouns can act as both subjects and objects.
- Example: Janice has a yellow car. She drives it every day.
- Explanation: “She” is the subject pronoun referring to Janice and “it” is the object pronoun referring to the car.
As long as their antecedents are clear, using pronouns as subjects and objects in your academic writing greatly simplifies your wording and communicates your ideas much more powerfully.
Personal Subject Pronouns
Personal subject pronouns refer to the one or ones completing an action. Personal subject pronouns are I, he, she, it, we, you, they. For example:
- I am going to the mall.
- You can go to the game.
Both “I” and “you” are pronouns. In these examples they are subject pronouns because they are completing an action.
Personal Object Pronouns
Personal object pronouns refer to one or ones who receive the action. Personal object pronouns are me, you, him, her, it, us, them. For example:
- Jane is coming with me.
- I’m giving him the car tonight.
In these examples, “me” and “him” are receiving the action of the verb. Therefore, they are object pronouns.
Possessive pronouns show ownership in relation to the pronoun. Possessive pronouns are mine, yours, his, hers, it, ours, yours, and theirs. For example:
- The house on the corner is his.
Possessive adjectives show ownership. Possessive adjectives are my, your, his, her, its, our, and their. For example, when paired with the noun school in a sentence, his becomes a possessive adjective.
- His school is a few miles away.
Reflexive pronouns refer back to, or “reflect” (hence the name), the subject. Intensive pronouns emphasize the noun. Intensive and reflexive pronouns are myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves.
- Intensive example: I did it myself.
“Myself” emphasizes “I” and is therefore an intensive pronoun. Also, if “myself” were removed, the meaning of the sentence would not change.
- Jane bought herself a car.
“Herself” is the reflexive pronoun because it “reflects” back to the subject: Jane.
Other categories of pronouns do not have forms for every single category on the lists above. Their forms are determined primarily by their grammatical function or antecedent rather than by person. Some do have forms that depend on number.