Learning Objectives

  • identify functions of pronouns
  • identify pronoun person and number
  • identify pronoun case (subjects, objects, possessives)
  • identify pronoun and antecedent clarity
  • identify pronoun and antecedent agreement

A woman running while wearing headphones.Anna decided at the beginning of Anna’s first semester of college that Anna would run for thirty minutes every day. Anna knew that Anna would be taking a literature class with a lot of reading, so instead of buying print copies of all the novels Anna’s teacher assigned, Anna bought the audiobooks. That way Anna could listen to the audiobooks as Anna ran.

Does this paragraph feel awkward to you? Let’s try it again using pronouns:

Anna decided at the beginning of her first semester of college that she would run for thirty minutes every day. She knew that she would be taking a literature class with a lot of reading, so instead of buying hard copies of all the novels her teacher assigned, Anna bought the audiobooks. That way she could listen to them as she ran.

This second paragraph is much more natural. Instead of repeating nouns multiple times, we were able to use pronouns. You’ve likely hear the phrase “a pronoun replaces a noun”; this is exactly what a pronoun does.

In this outcome, you’ll learn how pronouns work, how to use pronouns in different situations, and how to select the correct pronouns.

Function of Pronouns

A pronoun stands in the place of a noun. Because a pronoun is replacing a noun, its meaning is dependent on the noun that it is replacing. This noun is called the antecedent. Let’s look at the two sentences we just read again:

Because a pronoun is replacing a noun, its meaning is dependent on the noun that it is replacing. This noun is called an antecedent.

There are two pronouns here: its and itIts and it both have the same antecedent: “a pronoun.” Whenever you use a pronoun, you must also include its antecedent. Without the antecedent, your readers (or listeners) won’t be able to figure out what the pronoun is referring to. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • Jason likes it when people look to him for leadership.
  • Trini brushes her hair every morning.
  • Billy often has to clean his glasses.
  • Kimberly is a gymnast. She has earned several medals in different competitions.

So, what are the antecedents and pronouns in these sentences?

  • Jason is the antecedent for the pronoun him.
  • Trini is the antecedent for the pronoun her.
  • Billy is the antecedent for the pronoun his.
  • Kimberly is the antecedent for the pronoun she.


Identify the antecedent in the following examples:

  1. The bus is twenty minutes late today, like it always is.
  2. I would never be caught dead wearing boot sandals. They are an affront to nature.

There are several types of pronouns, including personal, demonstrative, and indefinite pronouns. Let’s discuss each of these types.

Personal Pronouns

The following sentences give examples of particular types of pronouns used with antecedents:

  • Third-person personal pronouns:
    • That poor man looks as if he needs a new coat. (the noun phrase that poor man is the antecedent of he)
    • Kat arrived yesterday. I met her at the station. (Kat is the antecedent of her)
    • When they saw us, the lions began roaring (the lions is the antecedent of they)
  • Other personal pronouns in some circumstances:
    • Adam and I were hoping no-one would find us. (Adam and I is the antecedent of us)
    • You and Aisha can come if you like. (you and Aisha is the antecedent of the second, plural, you)
  • Reflexive pronouns:
    • Jason hurt himself. (Jason is the antecedent of himself)
    • We were teasing each other. (we is the antecedent of each other)

Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns substitute for things being pointed out. They include thisthat, these, and those. This and that are singular; these and those are plural.

Icon of two location symbols connected by dotted lineThe difference between this and that and between these and those is a little more subtle. This and these refer to something that is “close” to the speaker, whether this closeness is physical, emotional, or temporal. That and those are the opposite: they refer to something that is “far.”

  • Do I actually have to read all of this?
    • The speaker is indicating a text that is close to her, by using “this.”
  • That is not coming anywhere near me.
    • The speaker is distancing himself from the object in question, which he doesn’t want to get any closer. The far pronoun helps indicate that.
  • You’re telling me you sewed all of these?
    • The speaker and her audience are likely looking directly at the clothes in question, so the close pronoun is appropriate.
  • Those are all gross.
    • The speaker wants to remain away from the gross items in question, by using the far “those.”

Note: these pronouns are often combined with a noun (when this happens, they act as a kind of adjective instead of a pronoun).

  • Do I actually have to read all of this contract?
  • That thing is not coming anywhere near me.
  • You’re telling me you sewed all of these dresses?
  • Those recipes are all gross.

The antecedents of demonstrative pronouns can be more complex than those of personal pronouns:

Animal Planet’s puppy cam has been taken down for maintenance. I never wanted this to happen.

The antecedent for this is the concept of the puppy cam being taken down.

Note: The pronoun it can also have more complex antecedents:

I love Animal Planet’s panda cam. I watched a panda eat bamboo for half an hour. It was amazing.

The antecedent for it in this sentence is the experience of watching the panda. That antecedent isn’t explicitly stated in the sentence, but comes through in the intention and meaning of the speaker.


Read each sentence pair. The pronouns have been bolded. Identify the antecedent.

  1. I can see forty bracelets. Are you telling me you made all of these?
  2. I can’t get rid of my country-shaped mugs. Tommy gave those to me for my birthday!
  3. Have I seen the video of a skateboard-riding bulldog? I showed that to you last week!
  4. He’s been talking for over two hours. This is unbearable.

Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns, the largest group of pronouns, refer to one or more unspecified persons or things, for example: Anyone can do that. The table below shows the most common indefinite pronouns:

anybody anyone anything each either every
everybody everyone everything neither no one nobody
nothing one somebody someone something

These pronouns can be used in a couple of different ways:

  • They can refer to members of a group separately rather than collectively. (To each his or her own.)
  • They can indicate the non-existence of people or things. (Nobody thinks that.)
  • They can refer to a person, but are not specific as to first, second or third person in the way that the personal pronouns are. (One does not clean one’s own windows.)

Please note that all of these pronouns are singular. Look back at the example “To each his or her own.” Saying “To each their own” would be incorrect, since their is a plural pronoun and each is singular. We’ll discuss this in further depth below, in the section “Antecedent Agreement.”

Note: Sometimes third-person personal pronouns are sometimes used without antecedents—this applies to special uses such as dummy pronouns and generic they, as well as cases where the referent is implied by the context.

  • You know what they say.
  • It’s a nice day today.

Person, Number, and Case

Personal pronouns may be classified by three categories: person, number, and case.


Icon of a personPerson refers to the relationship that an author has with the text that he or she writes, and with the reader of that text. English has three persons (first, second, and third).


First-person is the most informal.  The author is saying, this is about me and people I know.

  • First-person pronouns include I, me, we


Second-person is also informal, though slightly more formal than first-person.  The author is saying, this is about you, the reader.

  • All second-person pronouns are variations of  you, which is both singular and plural


Third-person is the most formal.  The author is saying, this is about other people.

In the third person singular there are distinct pronoun forms for male, female, and neutral gender. Here is a short list of the most common pronouns and their gender:

Person Pronouns
First I, me, we, us
Second you
Third Male he, him
Female she, her
Neutral it, they, them


Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence.

  1. This is Theo. (He / She / It) has a nickname—”Fast Draw.”
  2. Meet my parents. (He / It / They) don’t understand me.
  3. Luiza is an actress. Everybody knows (him / her / them).
  4. These flowers are for you and your family. I picked them for (them / you / yous).
  5. Look at these guys. Look at (him / it / them).


Icon of hand with forefinger extendedThere are two numbers: singular and plural. The table below separates pronouns according to number. You may notice that the second person is the same for both singular and plural: you.

Person Number Pronouns
First Singular I, me
Plural we, us
Second Singular you
Plural you
Third Singular he, him
she, her
Plural they, them


Suitcase iconEnglish personal pronouns have two cases: subject and object (there are also possessive pronouns, which we’ll discuss next). Subject-case pronouns are used when the pronoun is doing the action. (I like to eat chips, but she does not). Object-case pronouns are used when something is being done to the pronoun (John likes me but not her). This video will further clarify the difference between subject- and object-case:


Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence.

  1. I don’t know if I should talk to (he / him). (He / Him) looks really angry today.
  2. Enrico and Brenna are coming over for dinner tomorrow night. (They / Them) will be here at 6:00.
  3. Melissa loves music. (She / Her) listens to it when I drive (she / her) to work.

Possessive Pronouns

Icon of woman with arm wrapped around man's armPossessive pronouns are used to indicate possession (in a broad sense). Some occur as independent phrases: mine, yours, hers, ours, yours, theirs. For example, “Those clothes are mine.” Others must be accompanied by a noun: my, your, her, our, your, their, as in “I lost my wallet.” His and its can fall into either category, although its is nearly always found in the second.

Both types replace possessive noun phrases. As an example, “Their crusade to capture our attention” could replace “The advertisers’ crusade to capture our attention.”

This video provides another explanation of possessive pronouns:


Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence.

  1. Hey, that’s (my / mine)!
  2. Carla gave Peter (her / hers) phone number.
  3. Remember to leave (their / theirs) papers on the table.


The table below includes all of the personal pronouns in the English language. They are organized by person, number, and case.

Person Number Subject Object Possessive
First Singular I me my mine
Plural we us our ours
Second Singular you you your yours
Plural you you your yours
Third Singular he him his his
she her her hers
it it its its
Plural they them their theirs

Antecedent Clarity

Icon of two squares, one solid and one dotted line, connected by two curved arrowsWe’ve already defined an antecedent as the noun (or phrase) that a pronoun is replacing. The phrase “antecedent clarity” simply means that is should be clear who or what the pronoun is referring to. In other words, readers should be able to understand the sentence the first time they read it—not the third, forth, or tenth. In this page, we’ll look at some examples of common mistakes that can cause confusion, as well as ways to fix each sentence.

Let’s take a look at our first sentence:

Rafael told Matt to stop eating his cereal.

When you first read this sentence, is it clear if the cereal Rafael’s or Matt’s? Is it clear when you read the sentence again? Not really, no. Since both Rafael and Matt are singular, third person, and masculine, it’s impossible to tell whose cereal is being eaten (at least from this sentence).

How would you best revise this sentence? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

Were those revisions what you expected them to be?

Let’s take a look at another example:

Katerina was really excited to try French cuisine on her semester abroad in Europe. They make all sorts of delicious things.

When you read this example, is it apparent who the pronoun they is referring to? You may guess that they is referring to the French—which is probably correct. However, this is not actually stated, which means that there isn’t actually an antecedent. Since every pronoun needs an antecedent, the example needs to be revised to include one.

How would you best revise this sentence? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

As you write, keep these two things in mind:

  • Make sure your pronouns always have an antecedent.
  • Make sure that it is clear what their antecedents are.


Use the context clues to figure out which pronoun to use to complete the sentences. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence.

  1. Alex and Jordan went for a bike ride and stopped for lunch.  When the waiter came, (Jordan / he / she) knew what she wanted to order but (Alex / he / she) did not.
  2. Because (Jordan / she) loves cheese, (Jordan / she) ordered a slice of pizza.

Let’s try a more complicated paragraph:

  1. Edward is a year older than his brother Alphonse.  When (he / Edward) graduated high school, he took a gap year so that (he / Edward) could travel and study sciences not offered at the local college.  (He / Alphonse) was so jealous that (he / Alphonse) also took a gap year when he graduated.

Antecedent Agreement

Icon of a black hand and white hand shakingAs you write, make sure that you are using the correct pronouns. When a pronoun matches the person and number of its antecedent, we say that it agrees with it antecedent. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • I hate it when Zacharias tells me what to do. He‘s so full of himself.
  • The Finnegans are shouting again. I swear you could hear them from across town!

In the first sentence, Zacharias is singular, third person, and masculine. The pronouns he and himself are also singular, third person, and masculine, so they agree. In the second sentence, the Finnegans is plural and third person. The pronoun them is also plural and third person.

When you select your pronoun, you also need to ensure you use the correct case of pronoun. Remember we learned about three cases: subject, object, and possessive. The case of your pronoun should match its role in the sentence. For example, if your pronoun is doing an action, it should be a subject:

  • He runs every morning.
  • I hate it when she does this.

However, when something is being done to your pronoun, it should be an object:

  • Birds have always hated me.
  • My boss wanted to talk to him.
  • Give her the phone and walk away.


Replace each bolded word with the correct pronoun:

  1. Hannah had always loved working with plants.
  2. People often lost patience with Colin.
  3. Justin was unsure how well Justin and Terry would together.
  4. Alicia and Katie made a formidable team.

However, things aren’t always this straightforward. Let’s take a look at some examples where things are a little more confusing.

Person and Number

Some of the trickiest agreements are with indefinite pronouns:

  • Every student should do his or her best on this assignment.
  • If nobody lost his or her scarf, then where did this come from?

As we learned earlier in this outcome, words like every and nobody are singular, and demand singular pronouns. Here are some of the words that fall into this category:

anybody anyone anything each either every
everybody everyone everything neither no one nobody
nothing one somebody someone something

Some of these may feel “more singular” than others, but they all are technically singular. Thus, using “he or she” is correct (while they is incorrect).

However, the phrase “he or she” (and its other forms) can often make your sentences clunky. When this happens, it may be best to revise your sentences to have plural antecedents.


Here’s a paragraph that uses “he or she” liberally:

Every writer will experience writer’s block at some point in his or her career. He or she will suddenly be unable to move on in his or her work. A lot of people have written about writer’s block, presenting different strategies to “beat the block.” However, different methods work for different people. Each writer must find the solutions that work best for him or her.

How would you best revise this paragraph? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

Were those revisions what you expected them to be?


You and I versus You and Me

Some of the most common pronoun mistakes occur with the decision between “you and I” and “you and me.”  People will often say things like “You and me should go out for drinks.” Or—thinking back on the rule that it should be “you and I”—they will say “Susan assigned the task to both you and I.” However, both of these sentences are wrong. Remember that every time you use a pronoun you need to make sure that you’re using the correct case.

Let’s take a look at the first sentence: “You and me should go out for drinks.” Both pronouns are the subject of the sentence, so they should be in subject case: “You and I should go out for drinks.”

In the second sentence (Susan assigned the task to both you and I), both pronouns are the object of the sentence, so they should be in object case: “Susan assigned the task to both you and me.”

Note: This is the same principle that is behind the who versus whom debate. Who is the subject case of the word, and whom is the object case.