I, you, he, she, we, they—these are some of the oldest and most basic words in the English language. And what do they have in common? They are all pronouns. They may seem simple, but it’s easy to misuse them if you don’t understand them. Keep reading for a primer on pronouns and their classifications.
What is a pronoun?
Before we start a deep dive into pronouns and their uses, we need to make sure everyone is on the same page about what a pronoun is and why it’s used.
Here are a few key definitions for you:
- Pronoun—A word or (in a few cases) word phrase that is used in place of a noun or noun phrase
- Antecedent—The noun or noun phrase a pronoun stands for. This normally comes before the pronoun that substitutes it, but can also be used after it in cases where the substitution is simple and clear.
Take the sentence “The CEO and her husband were enthusiastic in their support of his favorite charity.” Here, we use the pronoun “her” with its antecedent “the CEO,” the pronoun “their” with its antecedent “the CEO and her husband,” and the pronoun “his” with its antecedent “(the CEO’s) husband.”
So why use pronouns? The simplest reason is to avoid repetition. This lets you deliver information in a quicker, clearer way than if you were constantly using noun phrases.
In the example above, the sentence is much easier to read than a pronoun-less version. Compare it to: “The CEO and the CEO’s husband were enthusiastic in the couple’s support of the husband’s favorite charity.” Our brains are so wired to use pronouns that this sentence is more confusing. You might think that “the couple” refers to some other couple rather than the CEO and her husband. It’s just not an efficient way to get your point across.
The main thing you need to know about pronouns and antecedents is that their numbers should always match or “agree.” This means that a singular antecedent (e.g., “the woman” or “Juana de la Cruz”) should be replaced by a singular pronoun (e.g., “her” for both cases) and take singular verbs. A plural antecedent (e.g., “the women” or “Juana, Julia and Jasmine”) should be replaced by a plural pronoun (e.g., “they” in both cases) and take plural verbs.
Types of Pronouns
One thing to remember as we explore the different types of pronouns is that a single pronoun can fall into more than one category. Pronouns are versatile like that, and they are classified by the ways they can be used.
And why classify them at all? If you understand a pronoun’s classification, you will understand what it’s meant to be used for. Many grammatical mistakes occur because people treat grammatical rules as instinctive. They will go by what “sounds” right or wrong without really understanding what makes it right or wrong.
Think about the difference between your morals and the law. Certain acts may “feel” like the wrong thing to do, but the law defines what you could go to jail for. In the same way, grammatical rules help you identify the right and wrong things to do when communicating. Understand these, and you’ll make fewer mistakes and more clearly get your point across.
Examples: she, her, he, him, I, me, we, us, they, them, it
When people talk about pronouns, most of the time they are referring to personal pronouns. These are generally what teachers of basic grammar will focus on. Their meanings and uses are fairly straightforward, except for one case: gendered pronouns.
In the past, the acceptable singular pronouns to refer to people other than yourself were “she,” “her,” “he,” and “him.” In very formal situations, the pronoun "one" was also acceptable. This has changed in the past few years. In 2017, major stylebooks officially updated their rules to accept the use of the singular “they” and “them” in specific cases.
Use the singular “they” and “them” when referring to:
- A person whose gender is either unknown or irrelevant to the context
Example: “Every person present must submit their updated resume and personal information form.”
- A person who is known to use or has requested the use of “they” as their personal pronoun (often this person will identify as nonbinary, gender-fluid, or gender-neutral)
Example: “My friend has requested that they be referred to using the pronouns ‘they/them’ and moving forward rather than ‘she/her.’ Please comply with their request.”
On the subject of gendered pronouns, you should respect the gender a person identifies as. A cisgender individual (whose sense of personal identity matches their birth sex) would follow the traditional use of “she/her” or “he/him.” A transgender individual (whose sense of personal identity and gender does not match their birth sex) should be referred to using the pronouns they identify with and not those of their birth sex.
In a round of introductions, you may wish to ask people to identify which pronouns they would prefer to be identified by.
Subject and Object Pronouns
Examples (Subject Pronouns): who, we, they, she, he, I
Examples (Object Pronouns): whom, us, them, him, her, me
Pronouns may be classified as “subject” or “object” depending on how they are used in a sentence. When a pronoun is the subject of a clause or preposition, you should use the subject form. When that pronoun represents the object of a clause or preposition, you should use the object form. One easy “cheat” for this is to think of a subject as the doer of the action, while the object has the action done unto them.
Here are some examples of correct uses of pronouns:
- He called earlier. She called earlier. They called earlier. Who called earlier?
- We called him. We called her. We called them. Whom did we call?
In the first set of examples, the pronouns shown in bold represent the doer of the action, which is calling. In the second set of examples, the pronouns in bold represent the recipient of the action, the party being called.
Examples: this, that, these, those
These pronouns are used to replace nouns that have been previously mentioned. Choosing which to use depends on physical or metaphorical proximity as well as whether you are referring to a single item or multiple items. “This” and “that” are used for singular items, while “these” and “those” are used for multiple items and are the plural forms of “this” and “that.” Meanwhile, “this” and “these” are used for nearby items, and “that” and “those” are used for faraway items.
Here are a few examples from the song “Belle” from the movie Beauty and the Beast:
- Ooh, isn’t this amazing? It’s my favorite part because—you’ll see!
“This” refers to the specific chapter of the book she is holding in her hands”)
- But behind that fair façade, I’m afraid she’s rather odd.
This line is by the villagers, and “that” is used because not only are they referring to a “fair façade” that is not their own, but using it (instead of “her”) emphasizes the distance between Belle and the villagers, effectively alienating her
And from “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid:
- Walkin’ around on those—whad’ya call ‘em?—oh, feet
“Those” is used because the speaker (Ariel) doesn’t have her own feet and does not interact with humans, so the distance is clear. The metaphorical distance is further emphasized because not only does she not have feet, but the concept is so alien to her that she forgets what feet are called.
- What would I give if I could live outta these waters?
It’s “these” waters because she’s actually in them, and metaphorically may also be referring to her situation in life (youngest daughter, princess with a pressure to perform, etc.).
Examples: which, what, that, who, whom
These are used to connect relative clauses to independent clauses. They often introduce additional information about something mentioned in the sentence.
“Who” and “whom” are normally used to refer to people. For example: “Not all who wander are aimless, especially those who seek truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond image.”—Mona Lisa Smile
“Which,” “what,” and “that” are generally used for animals and objects. For example: “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.”—Mulan
These pronouns are offset by commas for nonrestrictive (also known as nonessential) clauses. They appear without commas for restrictive clauses.
Examples: several, some, none, one, no one, nobody, other, another, any, anybody, anyone, everybody, everyone, someone, somebody, each, all, few, many
These types of pronouns refer to people or things that don’t need to be specifically identified. They are normally paired with singular verbs when used as the subject of a sentence.
Let’s look at some song lyrics for examples of the correct use of indefinite pronouns!
- Dean Martin: Everybody loves somebody sometimes, everybody falls in love somehow
- Adele: Never mind, I’ll find someone like you. I wish nothing but the best for you too.
- Queen: Can anybody find me somebody to love?
- Ace of Base: All that she wants is another baby, she’s gone tomorrow, boy
Possessive Pronouns: Limiting and Absolute Possessive Pronouns
Examples (Limiting): his, her, their, our, your, my, its, whose
Examples (Absolute): his, hers, theirs, ours, yours, mine
As their name implies, possessive pronouns show that someone or something belongs to someone or something else. The type identified as limiting shows that something belongs to an antecedent. It will often be paired with the object or person being “possessed.” Meanwhile, an absolute possessive pronoun can be substituted for the thing that belongs to an antecedent.
Let’s go to Broadway for examples:
- “My Shot” from Hamilton: I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot (limiting possessive pronoun “my” shows that the “shot” belongs to “I”)
- “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress: She is gone, but she used to be mine (absolute possessive pronoun “mine” shows that “she” belonged to “me/I”)
- “What Is This Feeling” from Wicked: Loathing, unadulterated loathing for her face, her voice, her clothing—let’s just say I loathe it all! (Two female singers sing the same lines at various parts of this song, expressing their hatred for each other, in this case, each other’s face, voice, and clothes, as indicated by the limiting possessive pronoun “her”)
Note: Possessive pronouns are often confused with contractions (when two words are shortened into one). A possessive pronoun never uses an apostrophe, so while “its” and “their” are possessive pronouns, “it’s” (it is) and “they’re” (they are) are contractions.
Reflexive and Intensive Pronouns
Examples: itself, herself, himself, themselves
Whether they're reflecting of intensive, these pronouns are spelled exactly the same. The key to correct classification is to understand their use.
Reflexive pronouns are more functional. Use them when the subject and object of a verb refer to the same person or thing (e.g., “He made a mess of himself during the demonstration because he was so nervous. I told myself we would offer some classes on public speaking after that.” Here, you can see that “he” and “himself” refer to the same person, while “I” and “myself” refer to a different person—the speaker).
Intensive pronouns emphasis to a statement. Take, for example, “I myself have never ridden a motorcycle” versus “I have never ridden a motorcycle.” Both sentences are correct, but the addition of “myself” emphasizes the speaker’s personal experience or lack thereof.
Examples: who, what, which, whose
As their name implies, interrogative pronouns are used in interrogative sentences—also known as questions! Some examples from Disney songs:
- “Who is that girl I see staring straight back at me?”—Mulan, “Reflection”
- “What would I give to live where you are? What would I give to stay here beside you? What would I pay to see you smiling at me?”—The Little Mermaid, “Part of Your World (Reprise)”
Examples: each other, one another
Reciprocal pronouns are used when the antecedents are at least two things or people. More often than not, the action or object applies to both simultaneously or in turn. In the statement “We love each other,” the pronoun indicates that everyone defined by "we" in this sentence love every other person.