The Simple Guide to Pronouns

You make use of different parts of speech ever day. You might not think about the grammar that you are using, but it is there. But what happens if you would like to know more about grammar, or you are planning to teach English to foreigners and have to know. Suddenly you may not feel so at home with your home language as what you thought – but no need to worry, there is no need to be a walking textbook. This simple guide will give you a reminder of the deeper workings of the language that you use every day. Whether it's for yourself or to teach to someone else, the simple guide will tell you all you need to know about pronouns.

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that is used in the place of a more specific noun (or noun phrase).

It is used to "un-clutter" sentences and speech - a pronoun represents the more specific noun (or noun phrase) so that it does not have to be repeated in its entirety e.g.

Instead of saying:

The plumber fixed the toilet when the plumber was here earlier – the plumber said it should be fine now.

We say:

The plumber fixed the toilet when he was here earlier – he said it should be fine now.

In the above example, he is a pronoun – it replaces the noun that it represents, "The plumber".

There are 8 main types of pronouns: personal, possessive, reflexive, relative, demonstrative, reciprocal, interrogative and indefinite.

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns are used to refer directly to someone or something (I, he, they, it, she, them) e.g.

I saw him eat it.

They went to the movies.

It is hot today.

Possessive pronouns

Possessive pronouns are used to show that something or someone belongs to something or someone else (mine, yours, his, theirs, ours) e.g.

That pen is mine.

They have a nice house, but I prefer ours.

It's not my problem, it's theirs.

Note: The difference between possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives can cause some confusion. A possessive pronoun will function as a subject or object in a sentence, while a possessive adjective will describe the subject or object e.g.

It is my pen. ("My" is a possessive adjective as it describes the object, the pen)

It is mine. ('Mine' is a possessive pronoun as it functions as the subject of the sentence)

Our house is the best. ("Our" is a possessive adjective as it describes the subject "house")

Ours is the best. ("Ours" is a possessive pronoun as it is the subject of the sentence)

His dog is sick. ("His" is a possessive adjective as it describes the dog)

The sick dog is his. ("His" is a possessive pronoun as it is the subject of the sentence)

Reflexive pronouns

Reflective pronouns are used when the subject and object refer to the same person or thing – one is "reflecting" meaning back onto the other (or onto itself). Reflexive pronouns end in "self" (for singular) or "selves" (for plural). (Himself, herself, itself, yourself, themselves, ourselves, yourselves)

He blames himself. ("He" and "himself" is the same person – each reflects meaning back to the other)

They can do it themselves. ("They" and "themselves" are the same people, each is reflecting meaning back to the other)

Relative pronouns

Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses. The subject or object being referred to is related to the clause by the relative pronoun. Who, whom, whose, which and that are relative pronouns. Who, whom and whose are used when referring to people, which is used with things and that is used for both (and often with animals) e.g.

The dog that ate my homework ran away. (The dog is related to the clause "that ate my homework " by the relative pronoun "that")

That is the man who escaped from prison. (The man is related to the clause "who escaped from prison" by the relative pronoun "who")

The road which leads to the mall is that way. (The road is related to the clause "which leads to the mall" by the relative pronoun which")

Demonstrative pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns indicate distance in space and time. They refer to something that is taking place or was taking place or to something that is closer to, or further away from, the speaker (this, that, these, those) e.g.

This is terrible; are you watching this?

That was terrible; were you watching that?

The top two examples above refer to something happening right now, the bottom two refer to something that happened in the past.

These are the clothes I want to wear; I want to wear these.

Those are the clothes I want to wear; I want to wear those.

The top two examples above refer to clothes that ate close to the speaker, the bottom two refer to clothes that are further away.

Reciprocal pronouns

Reciprocal pronouns indicate mutual action between subjects. Reciprocal pronouns are used when two or more people, animals or things are performing the same act and are affecting each other in the same way (each other, one another) e.g.

They were all shouting at one another.

The cats are scratching each other.

The graduates are dancing amongst one another.

Mary and John love each other.

Interrogative pronouns

The interrogative pronouns are who, whom, whose, what and which and they are used to ask questions. The interrogative pronoun replaces the person or thing that we are asking the question about e.g.

Who threw the water all over the floor?

Whose is this?

What can I do for you?

Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns are, as the name implies, not definite – they refer to vague amounts, people and things (another, many, all, several, one, none, some) e.g.

I'll take one.

All have now arrived.

None can defeat him.

Many have come but none shall succeed.

All of the above examples cannot clearly and specifically be defined – they have no definite descriptions as to what they are referring to.

Keep it simple

To someone learning the English language, knowing how to identify a pronoun is far more important than knowing exactly what type of pronoun is being used. Pronouns are words that take the place of more specific things, animals and people – they function as the subjects and objects in a sentence. This is the most important thing to remember when in need of a simple explanation of pronouns.