Pronouns are actually just another type of noun, but because they’re such an important noun type and so commonly used, they’re usually classified as a separate part of speech. A pronoun is a noun that takes the place of a noun or groups of nouns, and because pronouns are “standing in” for nouns, you have to be sure that the pronoun you choose to “stand in” agrees in number, person, and gender.
The menu on the left will take you to the different pronoun types, and there are quite a few: personal, definite, indefinite, singular, plural, possessive, relative, demonstrative, reflexive, subjective, and objective. That’s a long list, right?
The pronouns discussed in the following pages will probably not cause any trouble for native speakers, but you may find it interesting to realize how complicated this all is and, yet, how easily most of us can usually use pronouns without a problem. Still, issues with pronoun agreement (making the pronouns agree with the nouns they define) and pronoun reference (making sure it is clear what noun a pronoun is replacing) often appear in the writing of beginning writers. If you have ever had a pronoun issue marked on one of your essays, you are in the right place!
Personal pronouns are pronouns that take the place of common and proper nouns and refer to people and things. Essentially, they “stand in” for people and things when you want to make sure you are not repeating yourself by having to rename people and things all the time. Let’s look at an example.
My brother is staying up late to watch a “Walking Dead” marathon. He is going to have nightmares!
In this example, the author doesn’t have to repeat my brother, thanks to the personal pronoun he.
Personal pronouns can be singular and plural, and there are first, second, and third-person personal pronouns.
Personal (Definite) Pronouns
|she, her, he, him, it
Definite & Indefinite Pronouns
What is the difference between definite and indefinite pronouns? A definite pronoun would be a pronoun that refers to something specific, so a personal pronoun would also be a definite pronoun. (Refer back to the Personal Pronouns page to see examples.)
Indefinite pronouns do not refer to anything specific, so words like someone and everybody are indefinite pronouns. Indefinite pronouns can also be singular or plural.
While any pronoun that refers to a specific person or thing would be a definite pronoun, it can be helpful to refer to a list of indefinite pronouns if you need to use pronouns that refer to people or things in general and do not refer to anyone or anything specific. The list below can help.
|anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, no one, nothing, one, somebody, someone, something
|both, few, many, several
|Singular or Plural
|all, any, most, none, some
Singular & Plural Pronouns
Singular pronouns are simply pronouns that refer to singular nouns. But it can get a little tricky when you think about the fact that singular pronouns can be personal pronouns, which, as you have learned, refer to a person or thing. They will also be definite or indefinite, which means they can refer to someone or something specific (definite) or not (indefinite).
So words like "he" and "she" are singular, personal, definite pronouns, and words like "anybody" and "anyone" are singular, indefinite pronouns.
Plural pronouns are simply pronouns that refer to plural nouns. But, like singular pronouns, plural pronouns can also be personal and definite or indefinite, and they refer to plural nouns or groups of nouns.
For example, words like "they" and "we" are plural, personal, definite pronouns, and words like "many" and "both" are plural, indefinite pronouns.
TIP! Don’t worry if you feel a little confused about the fact that singular and plural pronouns can also be personal pronouns. They are definite or indefinite as well. However, most likely, you won’t find yourself in situations where you have to label pronoun types. What you do need to know is that, when you choose a singular or plural pronoun, you have to make sure it agrees with the noun you’re replacing. So, if you’re replacing a singular noun, be sure to use a singular pronoun.
Possessive pronouns are pronouns that show ownership. Some possessive pronouns can be used before nouns and function as adjectives (words that describe nouns). Examples would be pronouns like "my, her", or "his" because you would say things like "my books, her computer", and "his zombie plan".
Other possessive pronouns stand alone. These are pronouns like "mine, yours, hers", and "his". An example would be "That book is hers".
Relative & Demonstrative Pronouns
Relative pronouns relate subordinate clauses (clauses that cannot stand alone) to the rest of a sentence. Words like "that, which, who", and "whom" are examples of relative pronouns.
Demonstrative pronouns stand in for a thing or things, and we choose these words based on how close these things are to us. For things that are nearby, we use the pronouns "this" and "these". For things that are far away, we use the pronouns "that" and "those".
Reflexive pronouns end in self or selves, and they’re used when a pronoun is both the subject and the object of a sentence.
- She is going to can all of those beans for her zombie storage room herself.
- I am going to treat myself to a little vacation from all of this worry about a zombie apocalypse and spend the day playing Halo on my Xbox.
Reflexive pronouns can also be used to show emphasis in a sentence, as illustrated in this example:
- I myself had to go through all of those web pages to find the one that would be the most helpful for our escape plan.
Subjective & Objective Pronouns
Subjective and objective pronouns are simply pronouns that occur in either the subject or the object of the sentence. Subjective pronouns tell us who or what the sentence is about. Objective pronouns receive the action in the sentence.
There are some pronouns that are always subjective and others that are always objective.
|I, you, he, she, it
|we, you, they
|me, you, her, him, it
|us, you, them
Sometimes, determining which pronoun we should use in a sentence can be a little confusing, especially when it comes to "I" and "me". You might want to write:
- My mother bought my brother and I new clothes for the first day of school, even though we insisted we did not want to go.
The pronoun I in this sentence is actually incorrect because it appears in the object of the sentence. The sentence should read something like this:
- My mother bought my brother and me new clothes for the first day of school, even though we insisted we did not want to go.
The trick is to take out the other person in the sentence to see if you would use I or me. For example:
Incorrect: “My mother bought I new clothes for school.”
Correct: “My mother bought me new clothes for school.”
Pronoun Agreement & Reference
Issues with pronoun agreement and pronoun references are common struggles for many beginning writers, but these problems are easy to correct once you realize the issue and just pay close attention to the pronouns you’re using in your writing.
Pronoun Agreement Errors
Pronoun agreement errors occur when the pronoun you are using to “stand in” for a noun does not agree with that noun in number, place, or gender.
- Clara needs to pick up her book.
Using the singular pronoun her does agree with Clara. It does not feel natural for a native speaker to say the following:
- Clara needs to pick up their book.
In the above sentence, "Clara" is the noun and "her" is the pronoun that agrees with Clara.
A common pronoun agreement error occurs when a writer uses a singular noun like "student" to represent students in general. Then, later, the writer may use "they" as a pronoun to replace "student" because the writer means students in general. This often occurs when people try to avoid that structure and use cumbersome word choices such as he/she, he or she, or (wo)men as there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun in the English language. Using these variations is not preferred, and rewriting the sentence is a better option.
How to rewrite the sentence will depend on which style guide you are using. Both the MLA 8th edition and the APA 7th edition support using the singular they. On the other hand, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) 17th edition does not support using the singular they in formal writing unless the person being discussed prefers they. CMOS recommends rewriting the sentence so that the noun and pronoun both agree.
For example, you may see something like this:
- If a student really thinks about how much they are paying for college, they are likely to be more focused in class.
According to the most recent MLA and APA style guidelines, this is correct. However, according to CMOS, the sentence should be rewritten.
You could rewrite it like this:
- If students really think about how much they are likely to be more focused in class.
Here is another example.
- When a chef adds a recipe to his or her Facebook page, he or she will often get many likes seemingly instantaneously.
Rewritten with the singular they:
- When a chef adds a recipe to their Facebook page, they will often get many likes seemingly instantaneously.
Rewritten with a plural subject and plural pronoun:
- When chefs add a recipe to their individual Facebook page, they will often get many likes seemingly instantaneously.
Rewritten without pronouns:
- When a chef adds a recipe to Facebook, likes appear seemingly instantaneously.
When in doubt, it is always safe to choose a plural subject so that the pronoun "they" flows more smoothly (and will be correct in number according to all style guides).
Pronoun Reference Errors
Pronoun reference errors can also be problems for beginning writers because it’s so easy to get in a hurry when you write and forget that you need to think about how clear your writing will be for your audience.
A common pronoun reference error occurs when students write about several different people or things and then use a pronoun later like "she" or "it", but the audience has no idea what "she" or "it" refers to.
Here is a simple example to give you an idea about what a pronoun reference error looks like:
- My mother and my aunt told me I should consider going to college, and she was right.
Here, the audience wouldn’t be sure which person the writer is referring to. Is it the mother or the aunt?
You want to be careful with your writing and make sure you’re clear and correct with your pronouns. Most of the time, slowing yourself down and working on some careful editing will reveal problems like these which can be easily corrected.
Tips from the Professor
Most beginning writers have a pretty good sense of correct pronoun usage, but a good editing strategy will help you make sure you have not missed any issues with pronoun agreement or pronoun reference.
One strategy is to edit your writing one time, just looking at pronouns, in addition to other editing passes. If you have had trouble with pronouns in the past, you should circle all of your pronouns and ask yourself questions about their purpose and what they refer to.
In this video, the Grammar Professor will review common issues writers have with pronouns.
NOTE: Because the use of the singular they is new, you may find some people who disagree, but most academics now agree that the singular they is correct. Please always refer to your style guide, as some style guides still recommend not using the singular they.