Pronouns in English grammar

Pronouns are, usually, words used in place of nouns. So you need to understand what nouns are first. If we didn’t have pronouns in English, it would sound rather stilted. We might say something like:

The cat is called Jemima. Jemima wants some food. The food for Jemima is in the cupboard, and Jemima’s owner must go to the cupboard to find the food to give to Jemima.

Sounds a bit like the text of an easy-read picture book, doesn’t it? More natural would be:

The cat is called Jemima. She wants some food. It’s in the cupboard, and her owner must go there to find the food for Jemima.

The reason we tend not to use pronouns much of the time with babies and small children is that they are not always easy to understand. I might say that this computer is ‘my computer’ but someone talking to me would call it ‘your computer’. My son might say, ‘I’m going to play the piano’, but then if someone else asked me what my son was doing, I would say, ‘He’s playing the piano.’ Understanding their use is obvious as we grow up, but do require a basic knowledge of what it means to be ‘me’ or ‘you’, which babies don’t have.

There are many types of pronoun defined – here is a basic list, although you may find that other sites or books gives a slightly different selection. Some languages other than English may have yet more forms.

Personal pronouns

These are the most straightforward form of pronoun, standing in place of a person, place or thing. There are two basic forms – subjective and objective. If you’re not sure about subjects and objects of sentences, you might want to scroll down the page about nouns before you continue this section.

Subjective personal pronouns are used when the pronoun is used as the subject of a sentence. There are seven of them in English: I, you, he, she, it, we, they.

Examples: I am using my computer. It is a PC. You are reading about pronouns.

Note that the word you can refer to just one person, or to several people. A few centuries ago, there was another form of this (‘thou‘) which referred to just one other person. This can be found in some old writings – such as Shakespeare’s plays, or 17th century versions of the Bible, but is only rarely used these days.

Objective personal pronouns are used when the pronoun is used as the object of a sentence. English (unlike some other languages) does not generally have different forms of nouns depending on their position in the sentence. But most of the pronouns do change. The seven objective personal ones are: me, you, him, her, it, us, them.

Examples: Do you understand me? Tell her about this idea. Let’s explain the problem to them.

Possessive pronouns

These indicate who or what something belongs to. Again, there are seven of them: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs.

Examples: This computer is mine. Your drink is in the fridge, hers is on the table.

Note:the word ‘your’ in the second sentence is a posessive adjective rather than a pronoun, since it describes who the drink belongs to, while ‘his’ is a word replacing the noun phrase ‘her drink’.

Demonstrative pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns are used when we identify someone or something. There are four demonstrative pronouns: this, that, these and those. They are all similar in meaning; ‘this’ and ‘these’ tend to refer to items fairly close at hand, while ‘that’ and’ ‘those’ tend to be further away. Moreover, ‘this’ and ‘that’ refer to single items, while ‘these’ and ‘those’ are plural.

Examples: This is my chair, that is yours. These are John’s pens, those are Mary’s.

Indefinite pronouns

The indefinite pronouns are the words used to give an idea of ‘all’, ‘some’ or ‘none’. The most commonly used indefinite pronouns are: anybody, somebody, nobody, everybody, anyone, someone, no-one, everyone, anything, something, nothing, everything, all, some, one, none, each, any, few, many.

Examples: Is somebody coming? Do you have any? I have nothing. Here are some. Note: some of the indefinite pronouns can also be used as indefinite adjectives if there is a noun in the sentence as well. If I said ‘Here are some biscuits’ then the word ‘some’ would be an adjective. >/p>

Reflexive pronouns

A reflexive pronoun refers back to the subject of the sentence. There are eight of these: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves.

Examples: I like to check my email myself. The cat washed herself. They decided to look after themselves.

Interrogative pronouns

An interrogative pronoun is used to ask questions. Who, whom, which and what are examples. Also, whoever, whomever, whichever and whatever can also be used in this way.

Examples: Who is on the phone? Which is the book you want? Whoever was that?

Note: again, some of these words can be used as adjectives as well as pronouns. If I said, ‘Which book do you want?’ then ‘which’ would be an adjective. To understand this much detail of grammar – which may be vital if you are learning a foreign language – you have to study the sentence structure closely to work out what exactly each part of speech is, grammatically speaking.

Relative pronouns

Relative pronouns link two phrases or clauses. These are similar to the interrogative pronouns: who, whom, which, that, whoever, whomever and whichever. They are relative rather than interrogative when they are not used to ask a question.

Examples: I do not like people who smoke. You can choose whichever you want.

The above may be more than you ever wanted to know about pronouns. But if you would like further examples or games, here are a few sites that go into even more detail:

What is a pronoun? – this one just looks at them in depth, rather than their grammatical forms

Wikipedia on pronouns – A very detailed description of how pronouns work, including some of those in other languages, with a page for each kind.

For further information on English grammar, see:

Basic English grammar – an overview of the different parts of speech
Verbs – different forms, tenses, and voices
Nouns – types of noun, uses of nouns in sentence structures
Adjectives – what adjectives are, how to use them, comparative and superlative forms
Adverbs – what adverbs are, when and how to use them