Back to Section Home

Pronouns

TIP Sheet
PRONOUNS

Pronouns replace nouns. Without them, language would be repetitious, lengthy, and awkward:

President John Kennedy had severe back trouble, and although President John Kennedy approached stairs gingerly and lifted with care, President John Kennedy did swim and sail, and occasionally President John Kennedy even managed to play touch football with friends, family members, or co-workers.

With pronouns taking the place of some nouns, that sentence reads more naturally:

President John Kennedy had severe back trouble, and although he approached stairs gingerly and lifted with care, he did swim and sail, and occasionally he even managed to play touch football with friends, family members, or co-workers.

The pronoun he takes the place of the proper noun President John Kennedy. This makes President John Kennedy the antecedent of the pronoun. The antecedent is the noun or pronoun that a pronoun replaces. There are six types of pronouns:

Personal Reflexive
Indefinite Relative
Possessive Demonstrative

Personal pronouns
Since nouns refer to specific persons, places, or things, personal pronouns also refer to specific persons, places, or things. Pronouns have characteristics called number, person, and case.

Number refers to whether a pronoun is singular (him) or plural (them). Thus John Kennedy becomes he or him, while the president's friends would be they or them.

Person is a little more abstract. The first person is the person speaking-I. The sentence "I expect to graduate in January," is in the first person. The second person is the one being spoken to–you: "You may be able to graduate sooner!" The third person is being spoken of-he, she, it, they, them: "She, on the other hand, may have to wait until June to graduate." A pronoun must match (agree with) its antecedent in person as well as number. So graduating students must be referred to as they or them, not as us; a valedictorian must be referred to as he or she, him or her, not as we or you.

Case refers to what job a pronoun can legally perform in a sentence. Some pronouns can be subjects and others cannot. For example, we are allowed to say "I expect to graduate soon," but we are not allowed to say "Me expect to graduate soon." Pronouns that may be subjects are in the subjective case; they are subject pronouns. Some pronouns cannot be subjects; they are, instead, used as direct objects, indirect objects, or objects of prepositions. They are in objective case; they are object pronouns: "His uncle hired him after graduation." "Uncle Joe gave her a job, too." "Without them, he would have been shorthanded."

First person Second person Third person
Subjective Objective Subjective Objective Subjective Objective
I, we me, us you you he, she, it, they him, her, it, them

 

Subject pronouns also are used after linking verbs, where they refer back to the subject: "The valedictorian was

she."

Indefinite pronouns
While personal pronouns refer to specific persons, places, or things, indefinite pronouns refer to general persons, places, or things. Indefinite pronouns all are third-person pronouns and can be subjects or objects in sentences.

Many indefinite pronouns seem to refer to groups–everybody seems like a crowd, right?-and so are often mistakenly treated as plurals ("Everybody overfilled their backpack"). However, any indefinite pronoun that ends in -one, -body, -thing is singular: "Everybody overfilled his (or her) backpack." The following indefinite pronouns are usually singular; if one of these words is the antecedent in a sentence, the pronoun that refers to it must also be singular. Thus, we must write, "Does anyone know," rather than "Do anyone know"; "Each of them knows," rather than "Each of them know"; and "Someone left her cell phone," rather than, "Someone left their cell phone."

Indefinite pronouns, singular
anyone anybody anything either each
no one nobody nothing another one
someone somebody something any
everyone everybody everything

 

On the other hand, some indefinite pronouns are plural:

Indefinite pronouns, plural
both few many several

Plural indefinite pronouns take plural verbs and plural pronouns: "Both were rewarded for their courage." "Many attend in spite of their other obligations."

A few indefinite pronouns can be either singular or plural, depending on the context:

 

Indefinite pronouns, singular or plural
most any all none some neither

 

Thus, we may write, "All is well," (singular) in reference to the general condition of things, or "All are attending," (plural) in reference to individuals. (For more, look up count and non-count nouns in an English grammar reference or online.)

(Some of the indefinite pronouns above can also be used as adjectives. In "Many left their trash on the riverbank," many is a pronoun replacing swimmers. In contrast, in "Many students went tubing on the river," many is an adjective modifying students. For more information, see the TIP sheet "Adjectives.")

Possessive Pronouns
Possessive pronouns replace possessive nouns. Thus, Jamie's Corvette becomes her Corvette. Possessive pronouns never take apostrophes.

 

Possessive pronouns
my our your his, her its their whose
mine ours yours his, hers
theirs

In the table above, the words in the upper row must accompany nouns: her Corvette, our Nissan. The pronouns in the lower row stand alone, as replacements for the adjective + noun pair– "Hers is fast; mine is slow."

Reflexive pronouns
Reflexive pronouns add emphasis. They always follow a noun or personal pronoun and do not appear alone in a sentence: "Jamie herself changed the tire." "She herself changed the tire." The meaning is that she, and no one else, changed the tire, and the emphasis is on the independence of her action. Reflexive pronouns also show that someone did something to himself or herself: "She surprised herself with how well she did on the test."

Reflexive pronouns
myself ourselves yourself
yourselves
himself, herself, itself
themselves

A reflexive pronoun cannot replace the subject of a sentence, such as in "Burcu and myself are taking that class together." Instead, use a personal pronoun: "Burcu and I are taking that class together" or "Burcu and I myself are taking that class together."

There is no theirself or theirselves. "They waxed the car themselves at home." There is no hisself: "Jesse taught himself French."

Relative pronouns
A relative pronoun begins a clause that refers to a noun in a sentence. (A clause is a word group with its own subject and verb.) Who begins a clause that refers to people: "Krista is the math tutor who helped me the most." That may refer either to persons or things: "Laura is the math tutor that knows the most about calculus; calculus is the class that I am taking in the fall." Which begins a clause that refers to things: "Statistics, which is the interpretation of collected numerical data, has many practical applications."

Relative pronouns
that who whoever whose
which whom whomever what

Who is a subject pronoun; it can be the subject of a sentence: "Who was at the door?" Whom is an object pronoun. It cannot be the subject of a sentence, but it can be a direct or indirect object or the object of a preposition: "Don't ask for whom the bell tolls." Who and whom often appear in questions where the natural word order is inverted and where the words you see first are the pronouns who or whom, followed by part of the verb, then the subject, then the rest of the verb. So it isn't always easy to figure out if you should use who or whom. Is it "Who did you visit last summer?" or "Whom did you visit last summer?" To decide, follow these steps:

 

  1. Change the question to a statement: "You did visit who/whom last summer." This restores natural word order: subject, verb, direct object.
  2. In place of who/whom, substitute the personal pronouns he and him: "You did visit he last summer"; "You did visit him last summer."
  3. If he, a subject pronoun, is right, then the right choice for the original question is who–another subject pronoun. If him, an object pronoun, is correct, then the right choice for the original question is whom–another object pronoun.
  4. Based on step three, above, correctly frame the question: "Whom did you visit last summer?"

 

Similarly, whoever is a subject pronoun, and whomever is an object pronoun. Use the same test for, "Whoever/whomever would want to run on such a humid day?" Change the question to a statement, substituting he and him: "He (not him) would want to run on such a humid day." The right word, therefore, would be whoever, the subject pronoun. On the other hand, you would say, "Hand out plenty of water to whomever you see." You would see and hand the water out to him, not to he; this sentence requires the object pronoun.

Demonstrative pronouns
Demonstrative pronouns indicate specific persons, places, or things: "That is a great idea!" That is a pronoun referring to the abstract noun idea.

Demonstrative pronouns
this these
that those

(Like some indefinite pronouns, demonstrative pronouns can also be used as adjectives. In "That band started out playing local Chico clubs," that modifies the noun band.)

For more on pronouns, see the TIP Sheets "The Eight Parts of Speech," "Pronoun Reference," and "Relative Pronouns: Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses."

Butte College | 3536 Butte Campus Drive, Oroville CA 95965 | General Information 530.895.2511

Back to Top