Adjective or pronoun: that tricky distinction

The English language is constantly changing. New words are created and old words fall into disuse. Australians start to speak and write differently from Canadians; New Zealanders use the language differently from Singaporeans. And to cope with these changes, grammar rules themselves change. For speakers of some other languages, the fact that the ‘rules’ of English grammar can change seems not just strange but unbelievable. But that’s the way English is, and this simple fact – that the rules of English grammar change over time – is the best explanation for today’s topic: picking the difference between pronouns and adjectives.

There are some pronouns that seem to behave exactly as adjectives do. Consider this example.

  • Cake is one of my favourite foods, and although I would like to taste each cake on the table, I’ll have a piece of this cake that has cream puffs on it.

In this sentence, the pronouns my, each and this are all describing nouns: foods, cake and cake. They are behaving like adjectives. But that is behaving exactly like a pronoun (standing in for cake). What’s going on?

Under the rules of traditional grammar, it was easy. Unlike other parts of speech, there was a set group of words that made up pronouns, and unlike the shape-shifting nouns and verbs that can morph into each other and into adjectives, pronouns were always pronouns, including pronouns that were used in exactly the same way as adjectives (to modify a noun). The pronouns that behave like adjectives include these ones (there are others):

  • my, our, your, his, her, its, their (possessive pronouns)
  • this, that, those, which (demonstrative pronouns)
  • any, each, every (indefinite pronouns)

To be fair, these words were still also acting like pronouns by substituting for possessive nouns. For example, instead of Susan’s blog is about grammar, we can use a possessive pronoun: Her blog is about grammar.  While Her looks like an adjective describing the blog, it is also behaving like a pronoun, replacing Susan’s.

But the fact that these words could be used exactly like adjectives began to bother some grammar experts more and more, and, over the last thirty years or so, the way we view these words has changed. Grammar experts created a new part of speech, determiners, in what is usually called modern grammar or contemporary grammar (to distinguish it from traditional grammar, where determiners do not exist). These pronouns that act like adjectives are classed as determiners – so neither as adjectives nor as pronouns! – in modern grammar. To add to the confusion, you will also see these words called possessive adjectives and demonstrative adjectives. But I like the simplicity of traditional grammar, so I prefer to think of them as pronouns.

There is no ‘right’ answer to how you should think about these words: pronoun, determiner, demonstrative adjective, possessive adjective  . . . You can choose what makes best sense to you.

In summary, some words traditionally classed as pronouns behave like adjectives. In modern grammar, these words are now classed as determiners, or sometimes in special subcategories of adjectives.

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Cake photo by Jeanie de Klerk on Unsplash


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