Pronouns are used to replace a noun or noun phrase when it is clear from the context (i.e. written text or conversation) what the pronoun is referring to. They are particularly useful in conversation or writing as they allow us to refer to people or things that have already been mentioned without unnecessary repetition. Without pronouns, we could be reading or listening to things like

"I like these books. These books are written by Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie is a talented author."

Pronouns can also be used to create dramatic effects in the text. For example, without using pronouns, the dialogue below will be poorer and more confusing (given the various reference points.)

Tom: I think Jane is ill. She does not look good.

Jack: I don't think so. When I last saw her just now, she was still happily chatting with Mary at the library.

Tom: Are they still there? I have something to tell Mary.

Jack: I'm not sure. That was more than twenty minutes ago.

Tom: I think I better go find them. Apparently, Mary has been thinking of going to the prom with me, but I don't think I will be free that night. I've tried hinting to her before, but I doubt she got the hint. Looks like I will have to inform her before it is too late.

Jack: Okay. Hope you'll find them still there.


The following are some tips on pronouns, organised in a manner for easy understanding.

1. Types of pronouns

(i) Personal 

These refer to a specific person or thing. Their forms change to indicate a specific person, number or gender. E.g.

I, we, he, she, they, it, me, us, him, her, them, you

I would rather talk to him than her.

(ii) Possessive

These define a person, or a number of people, who own(s) a particular object. E.g.

mine, ours, his, hers, theirs, yours

These books are not yours. They are mine.

(iii) Reflexive 

These refer to the subject of the clause or sentence. E.g.

myself, ourselves, yourself, himself, herself, itself, themselves

We should finish this project by ourselves, and not depend on others.

(iv) Reciprocal 

e.g. each other, one another

Mary and Susan do not trust each other.

The boys in the class enjoy talking to one another.

(v) Demonstrative 

e.g. this, that, these, those

Do you like these?

This is more expensive than that.

(vi) Indefinite

These refer to an identifiable, but not specified, person or thing. An indefinite pronoun conveys the idea of all, any, none, or some. E.g.

someone, something, somebody, anyone, anything, everyone

 Somebody has been taking money from the till.

It could have been anyone who was here last night.

(vii) Relative 

e.g. who, whom, whose, which, that

I like the shirt that you are wearing.

The man, whom you were talking about, is here.

(viii) Interrogative 

These are usually used in questions. E.g.

who, whom, whose, which, what

Which did you choose?

What would like you for dinner?


2. Pronominal references

This refers to the position of the pronoun within (or even outside) the text.

(i) Anaphoric

This is when the noun or noun phrase that the pronoun is referring to comes before the pronoun itself.

e.g. Sheila was unhappy that she (Sheila) was given more work to do.

The dog was running after the car, until it (the dog) got tired.

If this is not done properly, it can result in funny interpretations. For example,

  • By the second day, my arm's pain has subsided and on the third day, it has completely disappeared. (It is not clear if the "it" refers to the arm or the pain disappearing.)
  • John was watching the man in the restaurant but he soon disappeared. (It is not clear if the "he" refers to John or the man in the restaurant.)

(ii) Cataphoric

This is when the noun or noun phrase that the pronoun is referring to comes after the pronoun itself.

e.g. After he (Mark) arrived at the party, Mark decided to speak to the host.

As soon as she (Beth) heard the news, Beth passed out.

(iii) Exophoric

This is when the pronoun is referring to people or things not in the text, but rather in a certain context.

e.g. "What is this?" (the speaker is referring to something that both the speaker and listener can see - a shared context)

"Go sit over there." (the speaker points to a certain direction as he says those words)

3. Common pronoun errors

(i) Make sure that the pronoun agrees with the antecedent (the noun that the pronoun is referring to) 
It is important that the right pronoun is used to refer to the antecedent in terms of gender and number. For example,
  • Tim and John do not like his new teacher. (Wrong)
  • Tim and John do not like their new teacher. (Correct)
  • Jane forgot to bring his homework. (Wrong)
  • Jane forgot to bring her homework. (Correct)
(ii) Most indefinite pronouns (e.g. each, either, neither, every) are singular.
For example,
  • Each of us have to pay for this mistake. (Wrong)
  • Each of us has to pay for this mistake. (Correct)
  • Either of the boys have a pet. (Wrong)
  • Either of the boys has a pet. (Correct)
(iii) Avoid ambiguity. Clarify the sentence to avoid any misunderstanding.
For example,
  • Both Jack and John like football, but he only likes to watch it on TV. (Wrong) (It is unclear which person the "he" is referring to. Jack or John?)
  • Both Jack and John like football, but the latter only likes to watch it on TV. (Correct) (This makes it clear that John only likes to watch football on TV.)
  • James visited John after his accident. (Wrong) (It is unclear who met with an accident. James or John?
  • James visited John after John's accident. (Correct)

(vi) Wrong forms / choice of pronouns

e.g.  Me and my friends  / my friends and me will not go there again. (Wrong)

My friends and I will not go there again. (Correct)

This is the teacher, which saved the student. (Wrong)

This is the teacher, who saved the student. (Correct)