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Concourse 2



Pro-forms can, quite arguably, be considered a word class in their own right.  A pro-form is a word or phrase which depends for its meaning on reference to something else.
For example
    I did it that way
means very little if we don't know what that refers to.
(In what follows, pro-forms being discussed are in black and their referents, i.e., what they stand in for, are in red.)


pro-forms vs. pronouns

The concept of a pronoun (i.e., stand-in for a noun) is familiar in, e.g.:

  1. I saw the man in the red jacket that my wife had told me about and went up to him

in which the pro-form him (a pronoun here) stands in for the complex noun clause the man in the red jacket that my wife had told me about.

However, pro-forms do a lot more than simply stand in for nouns.  They also help us to avoid repeating whole clauses and phrases.  For example:

  1. I offered him some tea and biscuits with a bit of cake but he didn't want any.
  2. I offered him some tea and biscuits with a bit of cake although I knew he wouldn't want any.

Sentence 2 is a compound sentence with two potentially stand-alone clauses.  Sentence 3 is a complex sentence with a subordinate and dependent clause which can't stand alone.
In both cases, connecting clauses in this way to form more complex and fluent language is made much easier by the use of the pro-form any, a pronoun in this example.  Try making the sentences without using the pro-forms to see what's meant and you get the horribly clumsy:
    I offered him some tea and biscuits with a bit of cake but he didn't want any tea or biscuits or a bit of cake.

In the example at the top, we have a pro-form, do so, standing in for a complex verb clause.  This is clearly not a pronoun but it is a pro-form because it stands in for the clause in green.
Notice that we can actually stop the sentence after didn't with no loss in meaning.  That's elision and we are not concerned with it here.  The guide to substitution and ellipsis covers it in more detail.


pro-forms for nouns

It seems simple enough that the pro-form for nouns will be a pronoun.  And that's true but consider:

  1. Peter read the book and saw the film.
  2. Peter read the book and now he has seen the film

In sentence 5, because we have an auxiliary making up the perfect aspect, the pronoun cannot usually be omitted.  We can't have:
    *Peter read the book and now seen the film
If both verbs are in the same aspect, it is possible to omit the pronoun:
    Peter has read the book and seen the film.


  1. Fred can't have just walked in and stolen the money
  2. Fred can't have just walked in and he can't have stolen the money
  3. Fred can't have just walked in and have stolen the money
  4. *Fred can't have just walked in and he have stolen the money
  5. *Fred can't have just walked and he stolen the money

If we omit the modal auxiliary verb (can't, in sentences 9 and 10) we cannot use the pro-form at all.  We also can't repeat the subject.  We have to elide the subject altogether.

A number of other pro-forms can stand for noun phrases.  That doesn't mean they are pronouns, although they often are:

each, none, either, neither, all
    The guests complained to the manager and each had a point.
    The guests complained to the manager but none was satisfied.
    Give me the pen or the pencilEither will do.
    I tried cleaning it with soap and with petrolNeither worked.
    The hotel refunded the costs to the guestsAll were happy with that.
    The hotel refunded the costs to the guests.  All were happy with that
where the pro-form that stands for the predicate of the subject (what the hotel did).)
determiners and elliptical expressions: some, any, both, half, few, enough
These appear to be the same as the last category but it's usually possible simply to see them as cases where we can omit the noun rather than replace it with a pro-form:
    The guests complained.  Some (of them) came away happy.
    The two guests complained and both (of them) got the same answer.

the same
This is a common pro-form for noun phrases:
    I'll have the chicken.  I'll have the same.
Note that slightly formally, the same can be a pro-form for a clause:
    I'm taking the train to London and John the same.
These are forms of classifiers in English and can be general, typical or restrictive.  All types can be used as pro-forms as in, for example:
    I loved the material so a bought lots
a general partitive
    I loved the material so a bought a sheet
a typical partitive for thin, flat substances
    I loved the bread so I bought a loaf
a restricted partitive for this substance only


pro-forms for verb phrases

Pro-forms replace verb phrases in a number of ways.

Consider these examples:

  1. They should come to the restaurant and so should you.
  2. I was eating at the restaurant and so was she.
  3. He called the waiter and so did I.

Click here when you have explained why the pro-form in sentences 11 and 12 is the original verb (i.e., should, was) and in sentence 13 is did.


pro-forms for adverbials and prepositional phrases

A number of common pro-forms stand in for adverbials (not only adverbs) and prepositional phrases.

pro-forms for prepositional phrases (time and place):
    There's a restaurant right by the castle wall in the main squareThere we shall eat.
    We came
at 8 and were told then that the restaurant was closed.
earlyThat's when the fun starts.
    The meeting will be held
tomorrow morning Then / That is a good time to ask.
    I had a holiday in Goa
last year There you get the best food in India.
    I hung it
over the fireplaceIt / That / There seemed a good place.
The pro-form there can only be used for place.
The pro-form then can only be used for time.
The pro-forms that and it can be used for both time and place.
like that and that way (manner adverbials)
These two pro-forms are common in place of adjuncts:
    I try to speak softly and calmly in meetings.  That way, I get more of what I want.
    He spoke with enormous enthusiasm and that way carried the audience with him.
    He worked
pretty hard at university.  It's a pity he doesn't work like that in the office.


pro-forms for the predicate: do vs. auxiliaries

Strictly speaking, when do or an auxiliary function to make a question, a negative or add emphasis, we are not talking about their use as pro-forms because we can always analyse the sentence as one in which something has been elided.
For example:

  • John works till very lateDo you (work till very late)?
  • She didn't like it .  Yes, she did (like it).
  • I don't care for it but my wife does (care for it)

For teaching purposes, our students probably don't need to distinguish between ellipsis and use of a pro-form because the constructions are parallel.

The pro-form do can carry both the tense and the person of the predicate.
    I go there because my friends do.
    He finished the work.  Or said he did.
The pro-form do does not include a modal auxiliary:
    Most people must work until 6.  I certainly do(The do replaces only the verb work, not the auxiliary must)
    Most people must work until 6.  I certainly must.
in which the auxiliary stands as a pro-form for the entire verb phrase, must work until 6.
Modal auxiliaries act as pro-forms:
    I wouldn't eat there but some would.
where the pro-form would stands for the whole verb phrase.  Compare:
    I wouldn't eat there but some do
where the pro-form do stands only for the verb eat.
    You might like it.  So might the children.
where, again, the modal auxiliary verb stands for the whole verb phrase
Primary auxiliaries forming tense or aspect act as pro-forms for the following parts of the verb phrase:
    I have already finished, and so has Mary.
am already registered.  So are you, I think.
is playing tomorrow.  So is his friend.
had travelled by train as they had.
Compare: I had as much to eat as I wanted, as you did. where had is a main verb, not an auxiliary so cannot stand as a pro-form.
In causative clauses, which also employ a primary auxiliary (have or get) we cannot use the auxiliary to stand for the verb phrase.  In this case, it is the auxiliary which is simply elided.  For example:
    He had the roof repaired and the the house painted
so this type of referencing is better analysed as elision rather than the use of a pro-form.

As you can see, pro-form substitution for the predicate works very similarly to pro-form substitution for clauses.  In the classroom, they can often be handled in the same series of lessons.

too and either

too and either

These are not pro-forms, they are adverbs, but they can be dealt with here briefly because they are often used in conjunction with the pro-forms.

The adverb too often follows the pro-form in assertive positive statements, interrogatives and negative interrogatives:
I loved the strawberry ice cream and the banana one, too
I went to the party and John did, too.
I would love to come and I'm sure my husband would, too.
Did you see the fireworks and did the children do, too?
Should we pay now and should they, too?
Didn't you pay over the internet and didn't Mary, too?
The adverb either follows negatives:
I can't be there and my husband can't either.
I didn't like it much and John didn't either.


combining pro-forms

It is possible to replace more than one sentence component with a pro-form at the same time.  This makes things look complicated but the analysis is still the same.

Can you unpack what's happening here?  Click on the eye open when you have an answer.

Do you know who bought the tickets?
Yes, it seems Mary did that/it.
eye open
Here did is a pro-form for bought the tickets and that/it is also a pro-form for the action of buying the tickets.
The engine in his car will shut off when you stop for more than two minutes.
I didn’t know it would do that.
eye open
Here it's clear that that is the pro-form for the action of shutting down but the pro-form would do is more difficult.  The would is inserted because the tense form (I didn't know) is past and the speaker selects the past form of will accordingly.
Will he get it done on time?
Knowing how lazy he is I doubt he will (do that).
eye open
Two pro-form sentences are allowable here.  Although the will pro-form standing for he will get it done is obligatory, the do pro-form (for get it done) and the that pro-form for the action can be omitted with no loss of meaning.
I didn’t write to her but my wife might have (done it).
eye open
This is similar but the speaker is inserting a modal auxiliary verb to express doubt.  The might then becomes a pro-form for write to her with two optional pro-forms, done and it.
Did you break that?
No but the dog might have (done it).
eye open
This is a similar case except that the modal verb expresses possibility rather than doubt.  The pro-form might have replaces break that and the it pro-form for the action is optional, as is the done pro-form.

No small wonder, then, that learners have trouble with pro-forms.

Here's a summary of the main ideas.



Teaching pro-forms

It is the range of different types of pro-forms which is the central issue and the temptation to teach them together as a kind of mixture should be avoided.  It will confuse by loss of focus and different languages will have differences in the structures they use and in how parallel they are to English.
All languages use pro-forms of one kind or another so the concept is not mysterious.


raising awareness

The simplest way to do this is some kind of spot-the-difference noticing activity such as:

Pro-form type  Why is this  better than this? What's happening? 
noun substitution There were 20 children at the parts and each got a present to take home There were twenty children at the party and all twenty children got a present to take home  
clause substitution She has already finished and so has her brother She has already finished and her brother has already finished, too   
adverbial substitution There's a restaurant on the corner.  We can meet there  There's a restaurant on the corner.  We can meet in the restaurant on the corner   
They open at 6 o'clock so that's a good time to meet They open at six o'clock so six o'clock is a good time to meet  
predicate substitution Almost everyone came to the dinner party but John didn't do so Almost everyone came to the dinner party but John didn't come to the dinner party  

and so on for the other types drawn from the analysis above.
Leave out the first column and get the learners to figure out the fourth one for themselves.

An alternative is to use a text with the pro-forms highlighted in some way and get the learners to notice / discuss / think about what the language is doing.



Controlled practice can focus severely on form.  One way to do some is to get learners to improve sentences by using one or other of the pro-forms to which they have been alerted and which you have taught.  Something like

Improve these sentences by making them shorter.
Original  Improvement Changes made
He came to the party with his brother and Mary came to the party with her brother    
I like to get up early in the morning because if I get up early in the morning I can get more work done  
A: If you press Delete and hold Shift at the same time, the file will be permanently deleted
B: Oh, I didn't know that if I pressed Delete and held Shift at the same time that the file will be permanently deleted

and so on.

Remaining alert to your learners' production in terms of the (non-)use of pro-forms can pay dividends because it allows you to focus case-by-case on shaping and improving the language.
If, in your learners' written work or spoken production, you are alert to the non-use of appropriate pro-forms, you can lead them to noticing the gap between their production and the model quite easily, providing, of course, that you have taught the area.

Related guides
substitution and ellipsis a parallel guide taking a slightly different approach and covering some other areas
personal pronouns for a simple and general guide to a familiar pro-form variety
partitives for more on ways to make the uncountable countable in English
cohesion for more how linkage in texts is achieved