What Is a Pronoun? | Examples, Definition & List

A pronoun is a word such as “I,” “what,” “anybody,” “this,” or “it” that is used in place of a noun to refer to something or someone. Pronouns are used in a similar way to nouns, but their point of reference is much more general.

Pronouns are used for a variety of reasons—mainly to avoid repeating the same noun over and over when referring more than once to the same thing or person. They also allow us to refer to ourselves, address others, ask questions, and make generalizations.

People sometimes use the word “pronouns” to mean specifically personal pronouns (e.g., “he,” “she,” “they”). But there are many other types of pronouns in English, all essential to the language. All the bolded words in the examples below are pronouns.

Examples: Pronouns
You have to look out for yourself to make it in a competitive industry like this.

Someone asked him which he preferred, and he indicated these.

She asked for feedback but received none, which was disappointing.

How are pronouns used?

Pronouns are used to replace nouns (or noun phrases) in a wide variety of contexts. They therefore generally appear in the same positions as nouns (although with some differences).

For instance, a pronoun often acts as the subject of a sentence, followed by a verb that describes the action carried out by the subject.

Examples: Pronouns as subjects
They asked for a reference.

You look worried. What is the problem?

I aim to please!

Pronouns, again just like nouns, can also function as objects. There are two kinds of objects:

  • The direct object is someone or something that is directly acted on by the verb.
  • The indirect object is someone or something that receives the direct object. When present, it always appears immediately before the direct object.
Examples: Pronouns as objects
Open it!

Hank looks out for me.

They won’t give us anything.

May Dorothy ask you something?

Pronoun-antecedent agreement

A pronoun normally has an antecedent: the noun or phrase to which it refers. Pronoun-antecedent agreement refers to the concept of “matching” the pronoun with its antecedent in terms of number, person, and gender.

The antecedent may appear earlier (or occasionally later) in the same sentence as the pronoun; in a previous sentence; or in a sentence spoken by someone else. The examples below have the antecedent highlighted in the same color as the corresponding pronoun.

Examples: Pronouns and antecedents
Daniel often visits his grandmother, whom he loves very much.

As she walked through the dark forest, Jane became more and more nervous.

Person A: Did you know that mosquitoes only live for two weeks?

Person B: No, I’ve never heard that.

Pronouns sometimes don’t have explicit antecedents:

  • First- and second-person pronouns such as “I” and “you” don’t need them because it’s self-evident that they refer respectively to the person speaking or writing and to the person or people being addressed.
  • In conversation, the antecedent may be indicated by context or by a gesture (e.g., “Look at that!”).

Personal pronouns

When people talk about pronouns, they often mean personal pronouns. These are words such as “they” that you use to refer to yourself, to whomever you’re addressing, and to other people, animals, and things.

Personal pronouns take a variety of different forms based on:

  • Person: First-, second-, or third-person
  • Number: Singular or plural
  • Gender: Masculine, feminine, neuter (inanimate), or epicene (gender-neutral)
  • Case: Subject, object, possessive, or reflexive (intensive)

The impersonal pronoun “one” works in a similar way to the personal pronouns. It’s used to make statements about a generic person rather than anyone specific.

Personal and impersonal pronouns

Indefinite pronouns

An indefinite pronoun is a word that indicates an unspecified thing or person. A lot of commonly used indefinite pronouns are compound words formed by combining any-, every-, no-, or some- with -body, -one, or -thing (e.g., “nobody,” “everything”).

There are various other indefinite pronouns that describe quantity (e.g., “none,” “enough,” “many”) or distribution (e.g., “each,” “neither,” “all”). These words can generally also be used as determiners (e.g., “enough room,” “neither option”).

Examples: Indefinite pronouns
Someone is knocking at the door.

I’m sure everything will be all right.

We viewed two houses, but neither was the right choice for us.

All is well.

The impersonal pronoun “one” is sometimes classed as an indefinite pronoun too.

Demonstrative pronouns

There are four demonstrative pronouns in English: this, that, these, and those. They refer to something that has been previously mentioned or is clear from the context.

The four demonstrative pronouns differ in terms of the information they give about the relative nearness (literal or otherwise) of what they refer to and and in terms of number (singular or plural), as shown in the table.

Near Far
Singular Is this your handbag? I’d prefer not to discuss that.
Plural These are my sisters, Penelope and June. Those are beautiful flowers.
The demonstrative pronouns can also be used as demonstrative adjectives (e.g., “this hat,” “those people”).

Relative pronouns

A relative pronoun introduces a relative clause (or adjective clause): a clause providing additional information about what comes before it.

  • That, what, which, whatever, and whichever are used in relation to things.
  • Who, whom, whoever, and whomever are used in relation to people.
  • Whose is used to indicate ownership and can refer to either people or things.
Examples: Relative pronouns
Many of the houses that we passed were boarded up.

Through the door came a tall man who spoke to me in Dutch.

Joan didn’t accept our job offer, which is a shame.

What he wants is unclear to me.

The relative pronouns “that” and “whom” can often be left out, especially when doing so avoids repetition: “That was all [that] I saw”; “the people [whom] I spoke to.” There’s no problem with this as long as it doesn’t lead to confusion.

Many of these relative pronouns can also function as interrogative pronouns, as seen in the following section.

Interrogative pronouns

An interrogative pronoun is used to ask a question (or, in the case of indirect questions, to report a question asked in some other context). They are closely related to relative pronouns:

  • What and which introduce questions about things.
  • Who and whom introduce questions about people.
  • Whose introduces questions about possession (who owns something).
Examples: Interrogative pronouns in direct and indirect questions
What are you talking about?

I don’t know who said that.

Whose is the car parked outside?

I’m wondering whom I should speak to about this issue.

Expletives (dummy pronouns)

An expletive (aka dummy pronoun) is a word used in place of the subject or object in a sentence; they are used simply to fill in a gap in the sentence structure and do not have any meaning of their own.

The two expletives commonly used in English are:

  • It: For example, in the sentence “It rains often here,” “it” simply provides a subject for the verb “rains” without holding any specific meaning.
  • There: For example, in the sentence “There was a boy named Adnan,” “there” simply anticipates the phrase “a boy named Adnan”; the sentence could be rephrased as “A boy named Adnan existed,” but this would read much less naturally.
This kind of expletive is not the same as the other meaning of the word “expletive”: an obscene exclamation or curse word.

Reciprocal pronouns

The reciprocal pronouns in English are each other and one another. They indicate a mutual relationship between two or more things or people where each performs the same action toward the other(s).

Some people believe that “each other” can only be used for groups of two, “one another” for groups of three or more. You can follow this rule if you like, but it’s rejected by most style guides and rarely followed in practice.

Examples: Each other and one another
It’s important that people respect one another in the workplace.

We tease each other about everything, but we don’t really mean it.

Pronoun vs noun

Pronouns are used to replace nouns, so the two parts of speech have shared characteristics and appear in similar contexts:

  • Both nouns and pronouns refer to things, people, places, and concepts.
  • Both can serve as the heads of noun phrases.
  • Both can serve as the subject, direct object, or indirect object of a verb.
  • A complete sentence must normally contain at least one noun or pronoun.

But there are also important differences:

  • Pronouns cannot be modified by articles (“a,” “an,” or “the”) or by most other determiners (e.g., “some,” “every”), whereas nouns usually can.
  • Unlike some pronouns, nouns in English don’t change forms based on their grammatical role in a sentence (e.g, subject vs. object). Each noun has one fixed form.
  • There are relatively few pronouns, and it’s rare for new ones to be introduced, whereas the number of nouns is constantly expanding to name new concepts.

Pronouns vs determiners

Some pronouns have closely related determiners that are spelled similarly or identically to their pronoun forms. For instance, all the demonstrative pronouns can also be used as demonstrative determiners (e.g., “this,” “those”); and possessive pronouns such as “theirs” are closely related to possessive determiners such as “their.”

Even when they look the same, determiners differ from pronouns in terms of their grammatical function:

  • A pronoun stands alone as the subject or object of a verb.
  • A determiner instead modifies the noun that follows it.
Examples: Pronouns vs determiners
These apples look good to me, but those are clearly not ripe yet.

I thought this was her jacket, but she said it wasn’t hers.

Frequently asked questions about pronouns

Is “my” a pronoun?

“My” is a possessive determiner (sometimes called a possessive adjective), which is a word that precedes a noun and indicates possession (e.g., “my book”).

“My” is not typically classified as a pronoun because it does not take the place of a noun. The related word “mine” is used as a possessive pronoun (e.g., “That one’s mine”).

Some sources do categorize “my” and other possessive determiners as “weak possessive pronouns,” but they are more accurately categorized as determiners.

Is these a pronoun?

These is a demonstrative pronoun, like this, that, and those. As a plural demonstrative pronoun, “these” is used to refer to a group of people or things that has been previously mentioned or that is understood from the context.

“These” is used to refer to objects or people that are near in space or time (e.g., “If you want to borrow a book, you can borrow one of these”). For objects or people that are farther away in space or time, the demonstrative pronoun “those” is used (e.g., “There are some books on the table. You can’t borrow those”).

Is “our” a pronoun?

“Our” is a possessive determiner (sometimes called a possessive adjective), which is a word that comes before a noun and shows possession (e.g., “our house”).

“Our” does not take the place of a noun, so it is not typically classified as a pronoun. Instead, “ours” is used as a possessive pronoun (e.g., “Ours is worth more”).

Some sources do categorize “our” and other possessive determiners as “weak possessive pronouns,” but they are more accurately categorized as determiners.

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