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Pronouns

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Pronouns are small words like you, ours, and some that can take the place of a noun.

 

What is a Pronoun?

Pronoun (noun): a word that takes the place of or represents a noun

Pronouns are small words that take the place of a noun. We can use a pronoun instead of a noun. Pronouns are words like: he, you, ours, themselves, some, and each... If we didn't have pronouns, we would have to repeat a lot of nouns. We would have to say things like:

  • Do you like the manager? I don't like the manager. The manager's not friendly.

With pronouns, we can say:

  • Do you like the manager? I don't like him. He's not friendly.

A pronoun is a small word with a big job. In fact, a pronoun can take the place of an entire noun phrase. In this way, pronouns help us use fewer words and avoid repetition.

In the sentence "Please give this letter to Rosemary", we can replace "this letter" with "it" and "Rosemary" with "her", as you see below:

 

Please give

this letter

to

Rosemary.

Please give

it

to

her.

 

In a conversation, the speakers normally use pronouns to address each other: I speak to you. You speak to me. When we talk about John, we don't keep repeating John's name. We say he or him. If we talk about a thing, we can use the pronoun it.

A pronoun represents the person or thing that we are talking about (as long as we know which person or thing we are talking about). We don't usually start a discourse with a pronoun. We start with a noun and then move on to use a pronoun to avoid repeating the noun.

By "noun", we really mean: noun (food), name (Tara), gerund (swimming), noun phrase (twelve red roses). We can replace even a long noun phrase such as "the car that we saw crashing into the bus" with the simple pronoun "it".

Here are some examples of noun phrases and the pronouns that could replace them:

 

noun (phrase)

pronoun

the car

it

Anthony

he

the big woman with black hair

she

swimming

it

learning English

it

almost all French people

they

my wife and I

we

 

There are different types of pronoun, but they all have the same job - to represent a noun (phrase).

 

  • Personal Pronouns
  • Demonstrative Pronouns
  • Possessive Pronouns
  • Interrogative Pronouns
  • Reflexive Pronouns
  • Reciprocal Pronouns

 

Personal Pronouns

Personal pronouns represent specific people or things. We use them depending on:

  • number: singular (eg: I) or plural (eg: we)
  • person: 1st person (eg: I), 2nd person (eg: you) or 3rd person (eg: he)
  • gender: male (eg: he), female (eg: she) or neuter (eg: it)
  • case: subject (eg: we) or object (eg: us)

 

We use personal pronouns in place of the person or people that we are talking about. My name is Josef but when I am talking about myself I almost always use "I" or "me", not "Josef". When I am talking direct to you, I almost always use "you", not your name. When I am talking about another person, say John, I may start with "John" but then use "he" or "him". And so on.Here are the personal pronouns, followed by some example sentences:

 

number

person

gender

personal pronouns

subject

object

singular

1st

male/ female

I

me

2nd

male/ female

you

you

3rd

male

he

him

female

she

her

neuter

it

it

plural

1st

male/ female

we

us

2nd

male/ female

you

you

3rd

male/ female/ neuter

they

them

 

Examples (in each pair, the first sentence shows a subject pronoun, the second an object pronoun):

  • I like coffee. / John helped me.
  • Do you like coffee? / John loves you.
  • He runs fast. / Did Ram beat him?
  • She is clever. / Does Mary know her?
  • It doesn't work. / Can the man fix it?
  • We went home. / Anthony drove us.
  • Do you need a table for three? / Did John and Mary beat you at doubles?
  • They played doubles. / John and Mary beat them.

 

When we are talking about a single thing, we almost always use it. However, there are a few exceptions. We may sometimes refer to an animal as he/him or she/her, especially if the animal is domesticated or a pet. Ships (and some other vessels or vehicles) as well as some countries are often treated as female and referred to as she/her. Here are some examples:

  • This is our dog Rusty. He's an Alsatian.
  • The Titanic was a great ship but she sank on her first voyage.
  • My first car was a Mini and I treated her like my wife.
  • Thailand has now opened her border with Cambodia.

For a single person, sometimes we don't know whether to use he or she. There are several solutions to this:

  • If a teacher needs help, he or she should see the principal.
  • If a teacher needs help, he should see the principal.
  • If a teacher needs help, they should see the principal.

We often use it to introduce a remark:

  • It is nice to have a holiday sometimes.
  • It is important to dress well.
  • It's difficult to find a job.
  • Is it normal to see them together?
  • It didn't take long to walk here.

We also often use it to talk about the weather, temperature, time and distance:

  • It's raining.
  • It will probably be hot tomorrow.
  • Is it nine o'clock yet?
  • It's 50 kilometres from here to Cambridge.

 

Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrate (verb): to show; to indicate; to point to

A demonstrative pronoun represents a thing or things:

  • near in distance or time (this, these)
  • far in distance or time (that, those)

 

 

near •

far ⇒

singular ☺

this

that

plural ☺☺☺

these

those

Here are some examples with demonstrative pronouns, followed by an illustration:

  • This tastes good.
  • Have you seen this?
  • These are bad times.
  • Do you like these?
  • That is beautiful.
  • Look at that!
  • Those were the days!
  • Can you see those?
  • This is heavier than that.
  • These are bigger than those.

 

Do not confuse demonstrative pronouns with demonstrative adjectives. They are identical, but a demonstrative pronoun stands alone, while a demonstrative adjective qualifies a noun.

  • That smells. (demonstrative pronoun)
  • That book is good. (demonstrative adjective + noun)

 

Normally we use demonstrative pronouns for things only. But we can use them for people when the person is identified. Look at these examples:

  • This is Josef speaking. Is that Mary?
  • That sounds like John.

 

Possessive Pronouns

We use possessive pronouns to refer to a specific person/people or thing/things (the "antecedent") belonging to a person/people (and sometimes belonging to an animal/animals or thing/things).

We use possessive pronouns depending on:

  • number: singular (eg: mine) or plural (eg: ours)
  • person: 1st person (eg: mine), 2nd person (eg: yours) or 3rd person (eg: his)
  • gender: male (his), female (hers)

Below are the possessive pronouns, followed by some example sentences. Notice that each possessive pronoun can:

  • be subject or object
  • refer to a singular or plural antecedent

 

number

person

gender (of "owner")

possessive pronouns

singular

1st

male/ female

mine

2nd

male/ female

yours

3rd

male

his

female

hers

plural

1st

male/ female

ours

2nd

male/ female

yours

3rd

male/ female/ neuter

theirs

 

  • Look at these pictures. Mine is the big one. (subject = My picture)
  • I like your flowers. Do you like mine? (object = my flowers)
  • I looked everywhere for your key. I found John's key but I couldn't find yours. (object = your key)
  • My flowers are dying. Yours are lovely. (subject = Your flowers)
  • All the essays were good but his was the best. (subject = his essay)
  • John found his passport but Mary couldn't find hers. (object = her passport)
  • John found his clothes but Mary couldn't find hers. (object = her clothes)
  • Here is your car. Ours is over there, where we left it. (subject = Our car)
  • Your photos are good. Ours are terrible. (subject = Our photos)
  • Each couple's books are colour-coded. Yours are red. (subject = Your books)
  • I don't like this family's garden but I like yours. (object = your garden)
  • These aren't John and Mary's children. Theirs have black hair. (subject = Their children)
  • John and Mary don't like your car. Do you like theirs? (object = their car)

 

Notice that the following (with apostrophe [']) do NOT exist: her's, your's, their's

Notice that the interrogative pronoun whose can also be a possessive pronoun (an interrogative possessive pronoun). Look at these examples:

  • There was $100 on the table and Tara wondered whose it was.
  • This car hasn't moved for two months. Whose is it?

 

 

Interrogative Pronouns

We use interrogative pronouns to ask questions. The interrogative pronoun represents the thing that we don't know (what we are asking the question about).

There are four main interrogative pronouns: who, whom, what, which

Notice that the possessive pronoun whose can also be an interrogative pronoun (an interrogative possessive pronoun).

 

 

subject

object

person

who

whom

thing

what

person/ thing

which

person

whose

   

 

Notice that whom is the correct form when the pronoun is the object of the verb, as in "Whom did you see?" ("I saw John.") However, in normal, spoken English we rarely use whom. Most native speakers would say (or even write): "Who did you see?"

Look at these example questions. In the sample answers, the noun phrase that the interrogative pronoun represents is shown in bold.

question

answer

 

Who told you?

John told me.

subject

Whom did you tell?

I told Mary.

object

What's happened?

An accident's happened.

subject

What do you want?

I want coffee.

object

Which came first?

The Porsche 911 came first.

subject

Which will the doctor see first?

The doctor will see the patient in blue first.

object

There's one car missing. Whose hasn't arrived?

John's (car) hasn't arrived.

subject

We've found everyone's keys. Whose did you find?

I found John's (keys).

object

 

Note that we sometimes use the suffix "-ever" to make compounds from some of these pronouns (mainly whoever, whatever, whichever). When we add "-ever", we use it for emphasis, often to show confusion or surprise. Look at these examples:

  • Whoever would want to do such a nasty thing?
  • Whatever did he say to make her cry like that?
  • They're all fantastic! Whichever will you choose?

 

Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive (adj.) [grammar]: reflecting back on the subject, like a mirror

We use a reflexive pronoun when we want to refer back to the subject of the sentence or clause. Reflexive pronouns end in "-self" (singular) or "-selves" (plural).

There are eight reflexive pronouns:

 

 

reflexive pronoun

singular

myself
yourself
himself
, herself, itself

plural

ourselves
yourselves
themselves

 

Look at these examples:

 

non-reflexive
the underlined words are NOT the same person/thing

REFLEXIVE pronouns
the underlined words are the SAME person/thing

John saw me.

I saw myself in the mirror.

Why does he blame you?

Why do you blame yourself?

David sent him a copy.

John sent himself a copy.

David sent her a copy.

Mary sent herself a copy.

My dog hurt the cat.

My dog hurt itself.

We blame you.

We blame ourselves.

Can you help my children?

Can you help yourselves?

They cannot look after the babies.

They cannot look after themselves.

 

Intensive pronouns

Notice that all the above reflexive pronouns can also act as intensive pronouns, but the function and usage are different. An intensive pronoun emphasizes its antecedent. Look at these examples:

  • I made it myself. OR I myself made it.
  • Have you yourself seen it? OR Have you seen it yourself?
  • The President himself promised to stop the war.
  • She spoke to me herself. OR She herself spoke to me.
  • The exam itself wasn't difficult, but the exam room was horrible.
  • Never mind. We'll do it ourselves.
  • You yourselves asked us to do it.
  • They recommend this book even though they themselves had never read it. OR They recommend this book even though they had never read it themselves.

 

Reciprocal Pronouns

Reciprocal (adj.): given or done in return; [grammar] expressing mutual action

We use reciprocal pronouns when each of two or more subjects is acting in the same way towards the other. For example, A is talking to B, and B is talking to A. So we say:

  • A and B are talking to each other.

The action is "reciprocated". John talks to Mary and Mary talks to John. I give you a present and you give me a present. The dog bites the cat and the cat bites the dog.

There are only two reciprocal pronouns, and they are both two words:

  • each other
  • one another

When we use these reciprocal pronouns:

  • there must be two or more people, things or groups involved (so we cannot use reciprocal pronouns with I, you [singular], he/she/it)
  • they must be doing the same thing

Look at these examples:

  • John and Mary love each other.
  • Peter and David hate each other.
  • The ten prisoners were all blaming one another.
  • Both teams played hard against each other.
  • We gave each other gifts.
  • Why don't you believe each other?
  • They can't see each other.
  • The gangsters were fighting one another.
  • The boats were bumping against each other in the storm.

 

You probably noticed that each other is used in more examples above than one another. That's because in general we use one another (which sounds a little formal) less often than we use each other. Also, some people say that we should use one another only for three or more people or things, but there is no real justification for this.

 

 

Indefinite Pronouns

An indefinite pronoun does not refer to any specific person, thing or amount. It is vague and "not definite". Some typical indefinite pronouns are:

  • all, another, any, anybody/anyone, anything, each, everybody/everyone, everything, few, many, nobody, none, one, several, some, somebody/someone

 

Note that many indefinite pronouns also function as other parts of speech. Look at "another" in the following sentences:

  • He has one job in the day and another at night. (pronoun)
  • I'd like another drink, please. (adjective)

 

 

Most indefinite pronouns are either singular or plural. However, some of them can be singular in one context and plural in another. The most common indefinite pronouns are listed below, with examples, as singular, plural or singular/plural.

Notice that a singular pronoun takes a singular verb AND that any personal pronoun should also agree (in number and gender). Look at these examples:

  • Each of the players has a doctor.
  • I met two girls. One has given me her phone number.

Similarly, plural pronouns need plural agreement:

  • Many have expressed their views.

pronoun

meaning

example

s
i
n
g
u
l
a
r

another

an additional or different person or thing

That ice-cream was good. Can I have another?

anybody/ anyone

no matter what person

Can anyone answer this question?

anything

no matter what thing

The doctor needs to know if you have eaten anything in the last two hours.

each

every one of two or more people or things, seen separately

Each has his own thoughts.

either

one or the other of two people or things

Do you want tea or coffee? / I don't mind. Either is good for me.

enough

as much or as many as needed

Enough is enough.

everybody/ everyone

all people

We can start the meeting because everybody has arrived.

everything

all things

They have no house or possessions. They lost everything in the earthquake.

less

a smaller amount

"Less is more" (Mies van der Rohe)

little

a small amount

Little is known about his early life.

much

a large amount

Much has happened since we met.

neither

not one and not the other of two people or things

I keep telling Jack and Jill but neither believes me.

nobody/ no-one

no person

I phoned many times but nobody answered.

nothing

no single thing, not anything

If you don't know the answer it's best to say nothing.

one

an unidentified person

Can one smoke here? | All the students arrived but now one is missing.

other

a different person or thing from one already mentioned

One was tall and the other was short.

somebody/ someone

an unspecified or unknown person

Clearly somebody murdered him. It was not suicide.

something

an unspecified or unknown thing

Listen! I just heard something! What could it be?

you

an unidentified person (informal)

And you can see why.

p
l
u
r
a
l

both

two people or things, seen together

John likes coffee but not tea. I think both are good.

few

a small number of people or things

Few have ever disobeyed him and lived.

fewer

a reduced number of people or things

Fewer are smoking these days.

many

a large number of people or things

Many have come already.

others

other people; not us

I'm sure that others have tried before us.

several

more than two but not many

They all complained and several left the meeting.

they

people in general (informal)

They say that vegetables are good for you.

s
i
n
g
u
l
a
r

/

p
l
u
r
a
l

all

the whole quantity of something or of some things or people

All is forgiven.
All have arrived.

any

no matter how much or how many

Is any left?
Are any coming?

more

a greater quantity of something; a greater number of people or things

There is more over there.
More are coming.

most

the majority; nearly all

Most is lost.
Most have refused.

none

not any; no person or persons

They fixed the water so why is none coming out of the tap?
I invited five friends but none have come.*

some

an unspecified quantity of something; an unspecified number of people or things

Here is some.
Some have arrived.

such

of the type already mentioned

He was a foreigner and he felt that he was treated as such.

 

 

* Some people say that "none" should always take a singular verb, even when talking about countable nouns (eg five friends). They argue that "none" means "no one", and "one" is obviously singular. They say that "I invited five friends but none has come" is correct and "I invited five friends but none have come" is incorrect. Historically and grammatically there is little to support this view. "None" has been used for hundreds of years with both a singular and a plural verb, according to the context and the emphasis required.

 

Relative Pronouns

A relative pronoun is a pronoun that introduces a relative clause. It is called a "relative" pronoun because it "relates" to the word that its relative clause modifies. Here is an example:

  • The person who phoned me last night is my teacher.

In the above example, "who":

  • relates to "The person", which "who phoned me last night" modifies
  • introduces the relative clause "who phoned me last night"

There are five basic relative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, that*

Who (subject) and whom (object) are generally only for people. Whose is for possession? Which is for things. That can be used for things and people only in defining relative clauses (clauses that are essential to the sentence and do not simply add extra information). **

 

 

Relative pronouns can refer to singular or plural, and there is no difference between male and female.

Look at these examples showing defining and non-defining relative clauses:

 

 

example sentences
S=subject, O=object, P=possessive

notes

defining relative clauses

S

- The person who phoned me last night is my teacher.
- The person that phoned me last night is my teacher.

"that" is preferable

- The car which hit me was yellow.
- The car that hit me was yellow.

"that" is preferable

O

- The person whom I phoned last night is my teacher.
- The people who I phoned last night are my teachers.
- The person that I phoned last night is my teacher.
- The person I phoned last night is my teacher.

"whom" is correct but formal

relative pronoun is optional

- The car which I drive is old.
- The car that I drive is old.
- The car I drive is old.

"that" is preferable to "which"

relative pronoun is optional

P

- The student whose phone just rang should stand up.
- Students whose parents are wealthy pay extra.

 

- The police are looking for the car whose driver was masked.
- The police are looking for the car of which the driver was masked.

"whose" can be used with things

"of which" is also possible

non-defining relative clauses

S

- Mrs Pratt, who is very kind, is my teacher.

 

- The car, which was a taxi, exploded.
- The cars, which were taxis, exploded.

 

O

- Mrs Pratt, whom I like very much, is my teacher.
- Mrs Pratt, who I like very much, is my teacher.

"whom" is correct but formal

"who" is common in spoken English and informal written English

- The car, which I was driving at the time, suddenly caught fire.

 

P

- My brother, whose phone you just heard, is a doctor.

 

- The car, whose driver jumped out just before the accident, was completely destroyed.
- The car, the driver of which jumped out just before the accident, was completely destroyed.

"whose" can be used with things

"of which" is also possible

 

*Not all grammar sources count "that" as a relative pronoun.
**Some people claim that we should not use "that" for people but must use "who/whom". There is no good reason for such a claim; there is a long history of "that" for people in defining relative clauses from Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Authorized Version of The Bible to Fowler's and Churchill.

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