Pronouns

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word which replaces a noun or another pronoun.
And that's it - a pronoun quite simply does the job of a noun when we don't want to, or can't, say the noun for some reason. This reason is usually because it can be very tedious and long-winded to have to say or write every single noun every time we want to refer to it. Have a look at how tedious and long-winded these sentences are:
Mrs McDonald lives next door. Mrs McDonald has a big house and Mrs McDonald works in the city.
Luckily, with pronouns, we don't have to say "Mrs McDonald" every time we want to refer to her. Instead, we can say this:
Mrs McDonald lives next door. She has a big house and she lives in the city.
That sounds much better. What we've done is use a pronoun (she) to take the place of the noun that we don't want to repeat. In this example "she" takes the place of "Mrs McDonald". The noun that is being replaced by the pronoun is called its antecedent, so the antecedent of "she" in the example above is "Mrs McDonald".
We normally have to mention the antecedent at least once. If we didn't, we wouldn't have any idea who or what we were talking about! If I came up to you in the street and said:
She lives next door. She has a big house and she works in the city.
...then you would have no idea who I was talking about (unless of course I was pointing at her). That's why we need to say "Mrs McDonald" at the beginning.
Just as there were different types of noun, there are also different types of pronoun. We'll have a look at some of these now.

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns take the place of the name of the person or thing that we are talking about. When you refer to yourself in a sentence you don't say your name all the time. Instead you say "I" or "me". These two words, "I" and "me", are personal pronouns which we use when we refer to ourselves. Other personal pronouns take the place of other people and things in a sentence. For example we use "she" and "her" to talk about another (female) person. Here's an example:

John: I like Kate. She's very nice to me. I think I'll call her.
If it wasn't for personal pronouns then John would have to say this:
John: John likes Kate. Kate is very nice to John. John thinks John will call Kate.
This is possible, and there might even be a context where John would choose to say it this way, but he would usually replace the nouns "John" and "Kate" with personal pronouns (I, me, she and her).
We'll look at the other personal pronouns in a minute. First, though, we need to know why we have two personal pronouns for each person. Why do we have both "I" and "me" and both "she" and "her"? Well, have a look at these four sentences - which are correct?
I play tennis.
Me play tennis.
John pushed I.
John pushed me.
If you answered that the first and last sentences are correct, then you'd be right. The reason has to do with subjects and objects. So before we see why only the first and last sentences are correct, we need to explain a bit more clearly what we mean by subjects and objects.
Have a look at this sentence:
John ate an apple.
In this sentence there are two nouns – John and apple. Both of them are related somehow to the verb (ate), in the sense that one of them (John) is doing the eating, and the other one (the apple) is being eaten. We could put this in another way – we could say that:
  • John is the person (or it could be a thing) who is "doing" the action
  • the apple is the thing (or it could be a person) being acted upon, or having the action done to it.
When we talk about the subject we are talking about the person or thing doing the action, and when we talk about the object we are talking about the person or thing being acted upon. So in this example "John" is the subject and "apple" is the object.
We'll be talking about subjects and objects in a lot more detail in module 3, but this will be enough for now to help us with our personal pronouns. So, let's look at the first and last sentences again:
I play tennis.
In this sentence, "I" am doing the action of playing. So "I" must be the subject in this sentence.
John pushed me.
This time though it's John who is doing the action, so John is the subject. He's pushing me, so I'm having the action "done" to me - I'm being acted upon! So "me" is the object in this sentence.
And now we're ready to answer our original question, "Why do we have two personal pronouns for each person?"
  • I replaces the noun when it is the subject
  • me replaces the noun when it is the object
Here are "I" and "me" in a table with all the other personal pronouns:
SUBJECT OBJECT
First person singular I me
Second person singular you you
Third person singular he / she / it him / her / it
First person plural we us
Second person plural you you
Third person plural they them

First, second and third person

You'll see that we've talked about something called first, second and third person in this table. What does this mean? Well, imagine yourself in a conversation with a friend at a party. You see someone across the room who you don't like, and you say to your friend:
I like you, but I don't like her.
If you look back to the table you'll see that this sentence contains a pronoun in the first person (I), a pronoun in the second person (you) and a pronoun in the third person (her).
  • The first person (I) is the person talking.
  • The second person (you) is the person being talked to.
  • The third person (her) is the person or thing being talked about.
And that's always the case. The first person is always the one talking, the second person is being talked to, and the third person is being talked about. It doesn't matter if the pronouns are subjects (I/she/we) or objects (me/her/us). Here's another example:
John: She told him to get lost.
Deborah: Really! How did he react?
This time all the pronouns are in the third person (she; him; he). All of these pronouns are referring to people who John and Deborah are talking about.

Two pronouns or a noun and pronoun together

When the subject or object consists of more than one person, a common mistake is to use an object pronoun where we need a subject pronoun, or vice versa:
John and I went to the cinema.
John and me went to the cinema.
The first sentence is correct here. The whole subject is "John and I", and so we need to use the subject pronoun "I".
Sally pushed Jack and I.
Sally pushed Jack and me.
This time, the second sentence is correct. The whole object is "Jack and me", so we need the object pronoun "me".

Intensive and reflexive pronouns

We've just seen that "I" and "me" are personal pronouns which we use to refer to ourselves. There are two more types of pronoun which we use to refer to ourselves,

intensive and reflexive pronouns. Have a look at these two sentences:


"I made these cakes", Maria said proudly.
"I made these cakes myself", Maria said proudly.
What happens in the second sentence when Maria adds the word "myself"? It adds emphasis to what she wants to say - she wants to really stress the fact that it was her who made the cake and not someone else. We call this type of pronoun an intensive pronoun.
Now have a look at these two sentences:
"Ouch! I cut".
"Ouch! I cut myself".

The first sentence sounds strange. What did I cut exactly? Adding "myself" gives us the answer. If you think back to our brief mention of subjects and objects above, you'll see that in this example "I" is the subject (the person or thing who "does" the action of cutting) and "myself" is the object (the person who is acted upon). Normally in a sentence the subject and object are different people or things, but in the second sentence above they are the same person. And when the subject and object are the same person we use a reflexive pronoun.
You'll probably have noticed that the word we used as the reflexive pronoun is exactly the same as the word we used as the intensive pronoun ("myself"). So what's the difference, apart from the difference in use that we've just seen?
Well, when we use "myself" as an intensive pronoun, we can leave it out and the sentence will still make sense: "I made this cake" makes sense by itself. But when we use "myself" as a reflexive pronoun, the sentence no longer makes sense if we leave it out. "Ouch! I cut" doesn't make sense by itself. (Sometimes we can leave out the reflexive pronoun when common knowledge makes it very clear what we mean. For example, it's not necessary to say "I washed myself this morning". Common knowledge means we clearly understand what someone means when they say "I washed this morning").
Here are the other reflexive/intensive pronouns and some examples:
First person singular myself
Second person singular yourself
Third person singular himself / herself / itself
First person plural ourselves
Second person plural yourselves
Third person plural themselves
He patted himself on the back for a job well done. (reflexive)
They gave their tickets to their neighbours because they couldn't go themselves. (intensive)

Possessive pronouns

If you think back to the Nouns video you'll remember that we used nouns with apostrophes to talk about possession, and we called these possessive forms of nouns. Have a look at this sentence:
This is Mary, and these DVDs are all Mary's.
I am telling you here that the DVDs belong to Mary - they are her possessions. But it sounds a little long-winded this way, So, instead of repeating the possessive form of the noun "Mary's", I could instead use a possessive pronoun. Just like possessive forms of nouns, possessive pronouns tell us who something belongs to. In this sentence I need to replace "Mary's" with "hers":
This is Mary, and these DVDs are all hers.
That sounds better. We've used the possessive pronoun "hers" to say that the DVDs belong to Mary. Here are the other possessive pronouns with some more examples:
First person singular mine
Second person singular yours
Third person singular his / hers / its
First person plural ours
Second person plural yours
Third person plural theirs
The money's yours. Take it!
That computer's mine. You can't have it!
Give the toy back, it's hers, not yours.
I can't believe all this land is ours !

Demonstrative pronouns

English has four words which we call demonstrative pronouns:
  • this
  • that
  • these
  • those
We use demonstrative pronouns to point out something specific. "This" and "that" are singular, "these" and "those" are plural. So we use "this" and "that" to replace singular nouns, and "these" and "those" to replace plural nouns.
Look at that!
Hey, look at her shoes. I want a pair of those!
Remember that all pronouns have an antecedent (a noun which they take the place of). In the first sentence it's not immediately clear what the antecedent for "that" is - we need some more information or context. It could be "the rain", or "the strange man on TV". In the second sentence we have the antecedent from the first part of the sentence - the antecedent is "her shoes".
These pronouns give us the general location of the noun they're replacing in relation to us. We usually use "this" and "these" when the thing we are referring to is in close proximity to us, and "that" and "those" when the thing is further away. So we might say:
Look at this!
...when we're sitting at a computer and we want someone to look at something on the screen in front of us. And we might say:
Look at that!
...when we're pointing at the strange aeroplane in the sky!

Interrogative pronouns

The next type of pronoun we're going to look at are called interrogative pronouns. These are who, whom, which and what and we find them at the beginning of questions. Here are a few examples with the interrogative pronouns underlined:
Who took the last biscuit?
Whom shall I say is calling?
Which shall we take?
What is he talking about?
Interrogative pronouns don't normally have antecedents - that is, we don't know which noun they are replacing. If we knew that, we wouldn't need to ask the question in the first place! However, although we don't know exactly which noun they are replacing, we usually know if that noun is likely to be a person or a thing. If we ask a question with "who" or "whom", we expect the answer to be a person. If we ask a question with "which" or "what", we usually expect the answer to be a thing.

Who and whom

You might be wondering what the difference is between "who" and "whom". Why do we have two words to ask questions about people? Well, the answer has to do with subjects and objects again, and we'll show you the difference when we look at questions in more detail in module 3.

Which and what

We said above that if we use "which" or "what" we usually expect the answer to be a thing rather than a person. But what's the difference between "which" and "what"? Well, "which" tells us that there is a limited choice of options and "what" tells us that the number of options is unlimited. Let's have a look at the same examples again:
Which shall we take?
What is he talking about?
In the first question we can imagine that there are just a few possible choices - maybe we're buying a car, and we have a choice between a red one, a blue one and a green one. In the second question the possible answers are limitless - he could be talking about the weather, his uncle, what time he got up, or an infinite number of other things.

Whose

There is in fact one interrogative pronoun missing from our list above - "whose". We've kept it apart from the others because it is a little different. "Whose" is an interrogative possessive pronoun, and the only kind of noun it can replace is a possessive noun. Here's an example of a question with "whose":
I found this wallet on the floor. Whose is it?
We've just said that "whose" has to replace a possessive noun, and so we might imagine that the answer to our question is something like:
It's Gary's.
Now, let's think right back to our definition of a pronoun at the beginning of this text. We said that pronouns take the place of nouns or other pronouns. In our answer above "whose" takes the place of a noun (Gary's). Here's another possible answer where "whose" takes the place of another pronoun:
It's mine.
It works. What we've done is used a pronoun (whose) to ask a question about another pronoun (mine)!

Relative pronouns

Some of the words we've just seen as interrogative pronouns have another role to play. Who, whom, whose and which, along with a fifth word, that, are also relative pronouns. We find relative pronouns at the beginning of what we call relative clauses. Relative clauses give us some more information about a noun and save us the trouble of having to repeat the noun or write two separate sentences. Let's look at an example without a relative pronoun:
The cat sat on the mat. The cat is fat.
There's nothing wrong with this, but we could save ourselves the trouble of having to say "the cat" twice by combining the two sentences, using a relative pronoun in place of one of the mentions of the cat:
The cat that sat on the mat is fat.
That's better, we've provided the same information but have avoided repeating the noun. Here are a few more examples.
The president, who served for 4 years, did a good job.
The family whose house I stayed in was very friendly.
This is the toy which is the most fun for children.
We won't go into any more detail yet about how we make relative clauses, because to do that we need to know what a clause is, and we'll learn all about clauses in module 3.

Indefinite pronouns

The last type of pronoun we're going to look at is what we call an indefinite pronoun. With most of the pronouns we've looked at so far, we've known exactly which noun they are replacing. The exception, as we saw, was interrogative pronouns, but even with these, the only thing we had to do was get an answer to the question to know exactly which noun they were replacing!
Indefinite pronouns are a little different. Unlike other pronouns, they don't indicate the exact person or thing they are taking the place of. Here are a few examples:
I'll give you anything you want.
Can somebody help me please?
Many have already left the party.
Some would say that he was a nice man. Others would disagree.
In all of these examples we can't pin down exactly which person or thing the pronoun is taking the place of. In the first sentence, for example, "anything" could be any of an infinite number of different things - we're not referring to any one specific thing. Similarly, in the second sentence, "somebody" could be any person at all - we don't have a specific person in mind when we say this sentence.
Here are some more examples:
Singular indefinite pronouns:
Do you want to eat now or later? Either is ok for me.
Nothing was decided at the meeting.
I'm bored, I need something to do.
Plural indefinite pronouns:
They all started to run but several got left behind.
More were left on the table than were eaten.
Some have been eaten already.
You might be wondering why we have divided these examples into singular and plural. Well, whether an indefinite pronoun is singular or plural is important to know because of something called subject verb agreement. And we'll be looking at subject verb agreement very shortly, when we look at verbs.

Recap

Here's a summary of the main points from this lesson.


  • Pronouns are words which replace nouns or other pronouns. The noun or other pronoun being replaced is called the antecedent.
  • Personal pronouns take the place of the name of the person or thing that we are talking about. When we're replacing the subject we use subject pronouns. When we're replacing the object we use object pronouns.
    Subject pronouns - I, you, he, she, it, we, they
    Object pronouns - me, you, her, him, it, us, them
  • The first person is the person talking. The second person is the person being talked to. The third person is the person being talked about.
    First person - I, me, we, us
    Second person - you
    Third person - he, him, she, her, it, they, them
  • We use intensive pronouns to emphasise the fact that we did something ourselves. We use reflexive pronouns when the subject and object are the same.
    Intensive - I built this house myself.
    Reflexive - He hated himself for what he did.
  • Possessive pronouns tell us who something belongs to and replace possessive forms of nouns.
    That cake is mine.
    The glasses are hers.
  • We use demonstrative pronouns to point out something specific. This and that replace singular nouns; these and those replace plural nouns. We use this and these to refer to something in close proximity to us, and that and those to refer to something further away.
    Give me that!
    These are delicious!
  • Interrogative pronouns come at the beginning of questions and don't normally have antecedents. We use who and whom if we expect the answer to be a person. We use which and what if we expect the answer to be a thing. Which tells us that there is a limited choice of options and what tells us that the number of options is unlimited.
    Who's there?
    What is she saying?
  • Whose is an interrogative possessive pronoun and replaces a possessive noun.
    I found this on the floor. Whose is it?
  • Relative pronouns come at the beginning of relative clauses. Relative clauses give us some more information about a noun and save us the trouble of having to repeat the noun or write two separate sentences.
    The woman who just sat down is a friend of mine.
    My car, which I love very much, is a Ford.
  • Indefinite pronouns don't indicate the exact person or thing they are replacing.
    Can anybody help me?

There's a downloadable factsheet for pronouns below.


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