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Concourse 2

Personal pronouns

pronouns

The clue's in the name.  Pro-nouns stand for nouns.
If you have done the guide to word class, you'll know that nouns can be proper (John, Paris etc.), concrete (table, dog, water etc.) or abstract (love, happiness, anger etc.).  Pronouns can stand in for any of these sorts of nouns.


person case

Person and Case

Before we can understand pronouns, we need to understand two main grammatical categories.

  1. person
    this refers to who.  There are three categories (in English):
    1. First person
      • Singular – I, me, my, myself etc.
      • Plural – we, us, our, ourselves etc.
    2. Second person (English does not usually distinguish between singular and plural – most languages do.)
      • Singular – you, your, yourself etc.
      • Plural – you, your, yourselves etc.
    3. Third person
      • Singular – he, she, it, him, her, his, hers, its, herself, himself etc.
      • Plural – they, them, their, themselves etc.
  2. case
    this refers to who is doing what to whom or what belongs to whom.  There are four categories (in English):
    1. Subject / nominative case I or we refers to the subject of the verb.  For example, in
        
       I smoke
      the subject is
      I and in
      John arrived
      the subject is
      John.
      In English the subject usually comes first.
    2. Direct object / accusative case – this refers to the recipient of the action.  For example, in
        
       I told John
      I is the subject and John is the object and in
          She drank the whiskey
      she is the subject and whiskey is the object.
    3. Indirect object / dative case (in many languages) – refers to the recipient of a direct object.  In all languages a verb may have two objects:
      In
          I gave the book to John
      we have one direct object (the book) and one indirect object (John).  In English we can reverse the order of the objects (dropping the preposition, to:
        
       I gave John the book
      Languages with case grammars will often distinguish between the two types of object by changing the form of the article or the noun (or both).  English does not have a separate pronoun for indirect objects but some languages do.
    4. Possessive / genitive case – refers to possession.  For example, in
          I saw John's cat
      the
      's is referred as the 'genitive s' and in
        
       That's my book
      my is the genitive or possessive marker.

Many languages you speak or have studied make much ado about case but English is (relatively) simple in this respect.
Before we go on, if there's any doubt that you have understood this, take a test to make sure.


three

Personal pronouns

There are three main classes of personal pronouns

Object and Subject
subject object

These are the most familiar and they look like this:

  subject object
1st person singular I me
plural we us
2nd person singular you
plural
3rd person singular masculine he him
feminine she her
neuter it
plural they them

Notes:

  1. As we will discover throughout, English lacks many pronouns which exist in other languages:
    1. English has no polite and familiar forms of address for you.  Compare French tu and vous, German du, Sie and ihr etc.  In fact, English makes do with only one pronoun for both cases in the singular and the plural where other languages may have up to four forms.
    2. English uses it for both the subject and the object case.
    3. English only distinguishes gender in the third person singular.  For the plurals, we don't.  In this chart, it is referred to as neuter but, because English actually doesn't worry too much about gender for inanimate nouns (with rare exceptions), a better term is probably the impersonal pronoun.
      It is analysed here rather than in the section on impersonal pronouns simply because it shares structural characteristics with personal pronouns.
  2. Although English has both subject and object cases, it is, in fact, generally rather lax (some would say downright sloppy) in the use of the correct case form.  Here's a short pedantry test.  Which of the following would you consider 'correct'.  Make a note and then click here for some comments.
1 Who did it?  Me. Who did it?  I.
2 I didn't know who did it but it turned out to be she. I didn't know who did it but it turned out to be her.
3 Between you and I ... Between you and me ...

Possessives
possess

There are also two sets of these:

adjective / determiner noun / nominal
my mine
our ours
your yours
his
her hers
its  
their theirs

Notes:

  1. The difference between the two columns:
    In the first column, the words are determiners.  They identify or limit nouns in some way just like words like the, some and that doFor example
        I ate some bread
        I ate
    her bread
        I stole the money
        I stole
    their money
    and so on.  The words in the first column are, therefore, usually called possessive adjectives or possessive determiners.
    In the second column, the words can stand as nouns (just like 'proper' pronouns).  For example
        My coat is here; hers isn't.
        Their car is more useful than
    mine.
    We can replace possessive pronouns by reverting to the noun with the possessive adjective so mine = my car, hers = her coat etc.  These words are, therefore, referred to as possessive pronouns or nominal possessives.
  2. The reason its only appears once is that it is not possible to use it as a possessive pronoun.  We can use it as a possessive adjective in, e.g.:
        What's wrong with the table?  Its leg is loose.
    but not as a possessive pronoun because that would give something like
        *Which leg is loose?  Its.
  3. The possessive adjective its is frequently confused with the contracted form of it is or it has (it's).  So we get, e.g.:
        *Its important to ...
    or
        *It's leg is broken.
    Please don't do this.  The form with the apostrophe is always the contraction of is or has.
  4. his is both a possessive determiner and a possessive pronoun
        It is his book
        It is his

    That can confuse lower-level learners.
  5. English uses possessive adjectives to refer to parts of the body.  Many languages will not have parallel structures for something like
        She cut her finger
    preferring
        She cut the finger
    or even
        *She cut herself the finger
    We do, however, often use the article in passive sentences.  For example,
        I must have been dropped on the head as a baby
    but even here the possessive is possible.

Reflexive pronouns
reflexive

First person singular myself
plural ourselves
Second person singular yourself
plural yourselves
Third person masculine himself
feminine herself
non-personal itself
plural themselves

Notes:

  1. These are referred to as co-referentials (i.e., they refer to the same thing) in some grammars.  We don't say, for example,
        Sue wrote Sue a note
    unless there are two Sues, but prefer
        Sue wrote herself a note
    When we use an object to refer to the same noun as the subject, in other words, English deploys the reflexive pronoun.
  2. English has few obligatorily reflexive verbs.  We don't, for example, meet ourselves (as we do in German), remember ourselves (as we do in many languages) or (usually) wash ourselves.  However, we can make many transitive verbs reflexive if we want to:
        I poured myself a drink
        She drove herself home

    etc.
  3. This is the area where English actually does have a full set of pronouns, even to the extent of distinguishing between you plural and you singular.
  4. You may hear or (perish the thought) be tempted to use theirselves instead of themselves.  It's considered wrong in educated use.

it, its and itself
it

As we saw above, the pronoun it is usually analysed as a personal pronoun because it shares the characteristics of the class (bar the fact that there is no nominal use).  More accurately, in terms of meaning rather than structure, it should be described as an impersonal pronoun.  Generally, as might be expected, the pronoun stands for singular inanimate objects or 'lower' forms of life so we have
    Where's the wasp?  It's behind you.
    What's that?  It's a new computer program.

and so on.
The pronoun has, however, some quirks in English, not always paralleled in other languages.

  1. The pronoun can be used to refer to people:
    1. If the sex is unknown or unimportant:
          That's her baby
          Oh?  What's its name
          Is that child OK?  It looks a bit sick.
    2. With personal reference:
          Who's speaking?
          It's John
  2. The pronoun is frequently used for higher animals if the sex is unknown or unimportant.  When the animal is, however, familiar to the speaker, the appropriately marked pronoun is preferred.
  3. It can refer to a previous text, written or spoken, in the way the pronoun that can be used:
        She failed her examination.  That was a shock.
        She failed her examination and it was a shock.
  4. It can be a substitute for a prepositional phrase:
        I put it in the cupboard.  It was the obvious place
  5. It can act as an empty or dummy subject when talking about the time, the weather etc.:
        It's snowing
        It's almost seven
  6. It can act as in anticipatory subject filling a similar role in the sentence:
        It is difficult to learn grammar
        It is a shame that he can't come to the party
        It is wrong to speak to her like that

In languages which have a neuter gender, such as German, Greek and many Slavic languages, the neuter pronoun overrides the sex of the noun so, for example, because the German word for the girl is a diminutive and carries the neuter gender (as das Mädchen), the correct use is, e.g.:
    There is a girl outside and it is asking to talk to you
Many languages do not deploy a dummy or anticipatory subject and that can lead to inter-language error such as:
    To speak Chinese is difficult
which is grammatical possible but unnatural.


Here's a summary as a graphic so you can save or print it out easily.

pronouns
Adapted from Quirk, R & Greenbaum, S (1973:102)

ones and one's

Missing from the charts above is the impersonal, rather formal pronoun one.  Here's how it works:

  1. As a subject pronoun, it is singular only and appears in clauses such as
        One must always remember that ...
  2. There is no object pronoun form so we can't have
        *He told one that ...
        *Give it to one!

    etc.  It can, somewhat rarely, and quite formally, be used in the passive, however:
        One has been told ...
    etc.
  3. The possessive adjective / determiner is one's as in One must always do one's best.
  4. There is no possessive pronoun form so we can't have, e.g.,
    Whose is that?
    *It's ones.
  5. There is a rarely used reflexive pronoun, oneself, which occurs in, e.g., One must try to be true to oneself.

The above has not covered all the pronouns in English because it is confined to personal pronouns.  Words like, all, something, anything, everyone etc. are also pronouns.  For those, see the guide to impersonal and indefinite pronouns, linked below.



Related guides (most of these are in the in-service training section and more complicated)
impersonal and indefinite pronouns the guide to the other major class of pronouns
pronouns in English go here for a list
determiners many pronouns can, in other environments, act as determiners
pre-determiners some pronouns occur as pre-determiners.  See this guide for more.
assertion and non-assertion which includes consideration of many pronouns such as the any- and some-series
pro-forms for more on how items can be substituted in clauses and texts
deixis this is a more technical guide to how English expresses not here, not now and not me
demonstratives go here for a simple guide to demonstrative determiners and pronouns
cohesion for more on how referencing holds language together
pronoun relative clauses for the guide and links to other clause structures
discourse index for the index to guides to the area in general in the in-service section
markedness for more on how English marks things for case, gender, number and so on


Take the test.


Reference:
Quirk, R & Greenbaum, S, 1973, A University Grammar of English, Harlow: Longman