Pronouns

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, 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 president? I don’t like the president. The president is too pompous.

With pronouns, we can say:

  • Do you like the president? I don’t like him. He is too pompous.


1. 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 case, the first example 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 engineer repair 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 Alsation.
  • 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.

2. DEMONSTRATIVE PRONOUNS

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.

3. POSSESIVE 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. (subject = 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)

4. 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 (possessive)
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?

5. REFLEXIVE PRONOUNS

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:

reflexive pronouns
the underlined words are NOT the same person/thing 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 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 have never read it. OR They recommend this book even though they have never read it themselves.

6. RECIPROCAL PRONOUNS

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), and
  • 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.

7. 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

ost 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
singular
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 know about his early life.
much a large amount Much has happend 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.
plural
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.
singular or plural
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.

8. 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 it modifies. Here is an example:

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

In the above example, “who”:

  • relates to “person”, which it modifies
  • introduces the relative clause “who phoned me last night”

There are five 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 people** and things and as subject and object in defining relative clauses (clauses that are essential to the sentence and do not simply add extra information).

REMEMBER…

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 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 cars that hit me were 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 very formal. The 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. The 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.
Of which is usual for things, but whose is sometimes possible
non-defining 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.
– Mr and Mrs Pratt, who I like very much, are my teachers.
Whom is correct but very formal. Who is normal.
– 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.
Of which is usual for things, but whose is sometimes possible

*Not all grammar sources count “that” as a relative pronoun.
**Some people claim that we cannot use “that” for people but must use “who/whom”; there is no good reason for such a claim.

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