Pronouns

Pronouns are words that take the place of a noun. They’re what make it possible for us to avoid repeating the same word numerous times in a sentence or paragraph.

We categorize pronouns based on what they refer to or replace. Some only fit into one category; others can belong to many categories.

Personal
These are the most common pronouns. They have forms to represent the different persons in common narrative: first, second, and third. They also show number and gender.

 

  Singular Plural
First Person Subject I we
Object me us
Second Person Subject you you
Object you you
Third Person Subject he, she, it they
Object him, her, it them

Why does it matter?
The subject pronouns (I, we, he, she, and they) can only appear as the subject of a sentence: I went to the store; we sang a song; he ate cake; she drank milk; they danced.

Object pronouns (me, us, him, her, and them) can only be used as the object of a verb or prepositions: the dog pulled me; our parents love us; the baker made him a cake; the choir sang for her; the cat ran to them.

Possessive
Each person (first, second, third) also has pronouns to show ownership. These take the place of nouns with an ‘s or s’

Some of these are used as attributive adjectives (before nouns), others are used as predicative or substantive adjectives (after or without a noun).

  Singular Plural
First Person Attributive my our
Predicative mine ours
Second Person Attributive your your
Predicative yours yours
Third Person Attributive his, her, its their
Predicative his, hers, its theirs

 

So, you would say: “that is my cat” or “the cat is mine,” but not “that is mine cat” or “the cat is my

Reflexive
These pronouns appear as the object of a verb or pronoun and refer back to the subject of the sentence or clause.

First person: myself, ourselves
Second person: yourself, yourselves
Third person singular: himself, herself, itselfthemselves

I kicked myself.
You love yourself.
You ate the cookies yourselves.
He gave the present to himself.
She baked herself a cake.
The robot threw itself out the window.
The windows won’t clean themselves.

Why does it matter?
Reflexive pronouns can’t refer to anything other than the subject of the clause they appear in, so you can’t say Billy baked a cake for myself.

Other gender-neutral third person pronouns
While the third plural pronouns are becoming more accepted as a gender-neutral alternative to it/its, this use is still awkward for some and frowned upon by others. To that end, there have been efforts in the past few years to find gender-neutral pronouns for people who identify as transgender or gender-queer. These pronouns can also come be used for genderless/sexless anthropomorphic characters, e.g.: robots, angels, deities.

 

Subject Object Attributive Predicative Reflexive
he/she him/her his/her his/hers him/herself
ey em eir eirs emself
xe xem xyr xyrs xemself
ze zir zir zirs zirself

Read more about Gender-Neutral Pronouns.

Why does it matter?
For writers it’s good to be aware of the way language is trending. For human beings, it’s good to be aware of the fact that not everyone identifies as (or wants to be identified as) male or female.

Reciprocal
These are similar to reflexive pronouns in that they refer back to the subject of the sentence. They replace plural nouns to show an action the individuals perform to, for, or with each other. English has two reciprocal pronouns; each other is used for subjects made of two people or things; one another is used for subjects of more than two people or things.

Why does it matter?
This distinction can be a good way to give or learn more information within context.

“The children chase each other” tells us there are two children, while “The children chase one another” tells us there are more than two children.”

Relative
Relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, that, and which) introduce a clause that gives more information about a given noun in the sentence. In the sentence “My aunt, who lives in New Jersey, has a daughter,” the relative clause “who lives in New Jersey” provides details about the noun “aunt.”

The form of the relative noun depends on its role in the relative clause. So if the sentence “My aunt, whose daughter is in college, lives in New Jersey,” the relative clause “whose daughter is in college” still gives more information about “aunt” even though it’s introduced by the possessive form “whose.”

Similarly in, “My aunt, whom I’m going to visit, lives in New Jersey,” the relative clause “whom I’m going to visit” gives more information about “aunt” even though it’s introduced by the object form “whom.”

Rule of thumb: who = subject, whose = possession, whom = objects

While who, whose, and who refer to people, that and which refer to nouns that aren’t people.

I sat on the bench, which was painted white.
I sat on the bench that was painted white.

Rule of thumb: if the relative clause isn’t necessary for meaning or understanding, use “which.” If it is needed, use “that.” (More details on this later.)

Why does it matter?
Relative clauses can be a powerful tool to vary sentence length. It’s also important to be able to identify them (and what they refer to) to ensure clarity of communication.

Demonstrative
These pronouns point to a specific noun. They can appear in place of a noun or along with it. In English, we use this/these and that/those. In general, this and these refer to nouns near the speaker, while that and those refer to nouns away from the speaker.

This coat is gorgeous, but that one is ugly.
These boots are muddy, but those ones are clean.
I’ll take care of this, if you can deal with that.

Why does it matter?
In dialogue, these pronouns work well to show how characters and the items around them are situated without explicitly describing their placement.

Interrogative
Similar in form to the relative pronouns, these pronouns are used to ask questions.

Who ate the cookies?
Whose cookies are these?
Whom are the cookies for? (or For whom are the cookies?)
Which cookies are mine?
What cookies do you mean?

These pronouns refer to unknown nouns, and expect the answer to provide the missing information.

Indefinite
These pronouns don’t refer to a specific noun. They include words like everyone, nothing, another, and whoever.

Any questions? 

 

Read more of my Grammar Guide

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