Pronouns: what they are and what they do

Pronouns: a substitute for nouns

In life, we often find it handy to use substitutes. In sport, the use of substitute players is not just a useful back-up but often a strategic move. Pronouns are the substitute players of the language world, and they substitute for nouns. They are not a subcategory of nouns; they are a distinct part of speech, and there are several distinct categories of pronouns.

Pronouns are the substitute players of the language world

Why do we need a substitute for nouns? To avoid writing becoming tedious and needlessly wordy. For example, consider the last two sentences of the last paragraph without pronouns:

  • Pronouns are the substitute players of the language world, and pronouns substitute for nouns. Pronouns are not a subcategory of nouns; pronouns are a distinct part of speech, and there are several distinct categories of pronouns.

Tired of the word pronouns?

While there is a limitless number of nouns (and verbs), the same is not true for pronouns. There are perhaps only as many as 120 pronouns (it depends how you count them and whether you count words such as thou and thee that are no longer used in everyday speech) and it is possible to learn them by heart. And while new nouns are being invented with every invention, there are no new pronouns coming into the language. Pronouns are very conservative category of speech; even when people have tried to introduce a new pronoun in the last few decades – s/he meaning she or he – the attempt has failed. There are unlikely to be any new pronouns any time soon.

Pronouns are subdivided into a number of categories: the exact number of categories is one of those things that grammar experts disagree on, and you can find sources specifying anything from six categories to ten. Most will agree on most of them but some sources will combine categories that other sources split. Don’t be put off by the lack of agreement on a specific number; it’s just one of those lovely fuzzy grey areas in English.

The different types of pronouns

1 Personal pronouns: I, me, we, us, you, he, she, it, him, her, they, them – these are the personal pronouns. They are used to refer to people – yes, it can refer to a person: The baby was upset; it was crying loudly – and the type of pronoun used depends on whether we are using first, second or third person (I; or you; or he, she or it); singular or plural; and what part of the sentence the pronoun is used in – whether the pronoun is performing the verb (I spoke) or receiving the action of verb (Tim spoke to me). (Technically, these are known as subject and object pronouns – but more on that when we get to sentence structure in a later blog.)

Personal pronouns refer to people by sex, individually and in groups

2 Possessive pronouns: my, mine, our, ours, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, their, theirs Possessive pronouns are used to show ownership or association between two things. Again, which one is used depends on where it used in a sentence: This is my book and This book is mine. The key thing to remember about possessive pronouns is that apostrophes are never used with possessive pronouns. You can read about this in more detail in my previous posts on apostrophes and the difference between it’s and its. And choosing between a personal pronoun and a possessive pronoun can turn the following word into a verb (present participle) or noun (gerund).

Possessive pronouns: show ownership or association

3 Reflexive pronouns: myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, themselves (and, controversially, themself) As you can see, an easy way to remember this group of pronouns is to think of them as the selfie pronouns. This group of pronouns is not about a reflex action (like yawning); instead, they refer back to the main actor in a sentence and provide more emphasis. I write this blog myself or I, myself, write this blog. They are often not necessary, which is why the MicroSoft Word grammar checker will highlight them for you. Themself is used by at least one publisher as a singular gender-neutral pronoun: Each student is expected to complete each task by themself. I’m still not sure whether I’m in favour (I’d probably prefer to avoid the word: Students are expected to complete each task by themselves.)

Reflexive pronouns: the selfie pronouns

The pronouns each other and one another are sometimes included in this group, and sometimes placed in another category called reciprocal pronouns.

4 Demonstrative pronouns: this, that, these, those Demonstrative pronouns specify a particular object or action. Not this pronoun but that one!

Demonstrative pronouns emphasise a particular thing

5 Indefinite pronouns: any, anyone, each, every, everyone, some, someone, no one, everybody, whoever, whatever In some ways, these are the opposite of demonstrative pronouns, by indicating a lack of specificity. Any pronoun will do as an example.

Indefinite pronouns: nothing in particular, just some or any or every

6 Interrogative pronouns: who, whom, whoever, whatever, which, what, whose These pronouns have a special function: they are used to start questions.

Interrogative pronouns start a question

7 Relative pronouns: that, which, who, whom, whose, what As you can see, this category contains words that are already in the demonstrative and interrogative categories, just to be confusing! But like everything in grammar, it is the function that these pronouns play in a given sentence, not the words themselves, that determines their status as relative pronouns (or demonstrative pronouns or interrogative pronouns). Relative pronouns are used to connect what otherwise be two short sentences into one longer one – and deciding which one to use can be tricky. We’ll look at this issue in more detail in a couple of weeks.

Relative pronouns join smaller sentences together, as my cousins and I are joined with our grandparents

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Photos: substitute player © Panya Studio/; people by Akson, person and dog by Joseph Pearson, selfie by Priscilla du Preez, demonstrative person by Miguel Angel Hernandez, some sand by Buco Balkanessi, question marks by Evan Dennis, all on Unsplash




2 comments on “Pronouns: what they are and what they do”

    • Susan Reply

      Dear Adi,

      It is all both my personal opinion and personal work (I’m not quite sure what you’re asking but I hope I’ve answered your question.)

      Kind regards,


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