Pronouns

A pronoun replaces a noun or noun phrase.  They are used to avoid dreary repetition (John woke up. John stretched…)  They are functional, closed class words.

You mainly need to know about personal pronouns at this stage.  They most commonly replace people’s names.  They are described by person (1st/2nd/3rd) and number (singular/plural).

Singular pronouns:

  • I/me – 1st person
  • You – 2nd person
  • He/him/she/her/it – 3rd person

Plural pronouns:

  • We/us – 1st person (remember that if there is a group with you in it, you will say ‘we’ or ‘us’, so those are the plural forms of ‘I’ or ‘me’)
  • You – 2nd person
  • They/them – 3rd person
    NB: the pairs above are subject/object* pronouns

Pronouns and Gender

Third person singular pronouns are gendered in English (i.e. there is one for male subjects and a different one for female subjects). There have been attempts to introduce neutral ones, but these have been mostly unsuccessful (possibly related to the slow speed of change with functional words). It is, however, now acceptable to use the third person plural ‘they’ to refer to a singular subject – something which some people still (somewhat stubbornly) see as wrong. This has been a growing tendency to refer to unknown subjects (e.g. ‘if a customer has a complaint, they should…’), but it is also gaining popularity as a choice to signal genderfluidity or a non-binary identity and is likely to increase further, unless alternatives emerge. Singular ‘they’ was the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year in 2015 for this reason, and the link above will take you to a very informative OED blogpost on the history of the pronoun if you’re interested.

Note that pronouns and titles/address terms (such as Miss/Mr/Mx) are not the same thing grammatically, but are related issues in this context.

Other types of pronoun:

  • Demonstrative pronouns demonstrate which one we mean and are mainly used in speech – Have you seen this? Did you eat that?
  • Interrogative pronouns start questions – Who ate that banana?  Which did you see?
  • Reflexive pronouns refer to things done to the speaker by the speaker – Baby Andrew fed himself today!
  • Relative pronouns introduce a relative (or adjectival) clause, adding more information about something – Do you know the girl who always stands over there? He ate the one that I wanted.

NB: subject and object relate to the verb in the sentence. The subject does or carries out the action of the verb, while the object receives it:

I ate the apple – I = subject; the apple = object

We saw John in town – we = subject; John = object

John seemed happy – John = subject (happy is a complement – an adjective giving information about the subject)