Pronouns have traditionally been regarded as one of the parts of speech, but some modern theorists would not consider them to form a single class, in view of the variety of functions they perform cross-linguistically. An example of a pronoun is "you", which is both plural and singular. Subtypes include personal and possessive pronouns, reflexive and reciprocal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, relative and interrogative pronouns, and indefinite pronouns.:1–34
The use of pronouns often involves anaphora, where the meaning of the pronoun is dependent on an antecedent. For example, in the sentence That poor man looks as if he needs a new coat, the antecedent of the pronoun he is dependent on that poor man.
The adjective associated with "pronoun" is "pronominal".[A] A pronominal is also a word or phrase that acts as a pronoun. For example, in That's not the one I wanted, the phrase the one (containing the prop-word one) is a pronominal.
Pronouns (antōnymía) are listed as one of eight parts of speech in The Art of Grammar, a treatise on Greek grammar attributed to Dionysius Thrax and dating from the 2nd century BC. The pronoun is described there as "a part of speech substitutable for a noun and marked for a person." Pronouns continued to be regarded as a part of speech in Latin grammar (the Latin term being pronomen, from which the English name – through Middle French – ultimately derives), and thus in the European tradition generally.
In more modern approaches, pronouns are less likely to be considered to be a single word class, because of the many different syntactic roles that they play, as represented by the various different types of pronouns listed in the previous sections.
Linguists in particular have trouble classifying pronouns in a single category, and some do not agree that pronouns substitute nouns or noun categories. Certain types of pronouns are often identical or similar in form to determiners with related meaning; some English examples are given in the table on the right. This observation has led some linguists, such as Paul Postal, to regard pronouns as determiners that have had their following noun or noun phrase deleted. (Such patterning can even be claimed for certain personal pronouns; for example, we and you might be analyzed as determiners in phrases like we Brits and you tennis players.) Other linguists have taken a similar view, uniting pronouns and determiners into a single class, sometimes called "determiner-pronoun", or regarding determiners as a subclass of pronouns or vice versa. The distinction may be considered to be one of subcategorization or valency, rather like the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs – determiners take a noun phrase complement like transitive verbs do, while pronouns do not. This is consistent with the determiner phrase viewpoint, whereby a determiner, rather than the noun that follows it, is taken to be the head of the phrase. Cross-linguistically, it seems as though pronouns share 3 distinct categories: point of view, person, and number. The breadth of each subcategory however tends to differ among languages.
Binding theory and antecedents
The use of pronouns often involves anaphora, where the meaning of the pronoun is dependent on another referential element. The referent of the pronoun is often the same as that of a preceding (or sometimes following) noun phrase, called the antecedent of the pronoun. The grammatical behavior of certain types of pronouns, and in particular their possible relationship with their antecedents, has been the focus of studies in binding, notably in the Chomskyan government and binding theory. In this binding context, reflexive and reciprocal pronouns in English (such as himself and each other) are referred to as anaphors (in a specialized restricted sense) rather than as pronominal elements. Under binding theory, specific principles apply to different sets of pronouns.
In English, reflexive and reciprocal pronouns must adhere to Principle A: an anaphor (reflexive or reciprocal, such as "each other") must be bound in its governing category (roughly, the clause). Therefore, in syntactic structure it must be lower in structure (it must have an antecedent) and have a direct relationship with its referent. This is called a C-command relationship. For instance, we see that John cut himself is grammatical, but Himself cut John is not, despite having identical arguments, since himself, the reflexive, must be lower in structure to John, its referent. Additionally, we see examples like John said that Mary cut himself are not grammatical because there is an intermediary noun, Mary, that disallows the two referents from having a direct relationship.
On the other hand, personal pronouns (such as him or them) must adhere to Principle B: a pronoun must be free (i.e., not bound) within its governing category (roughly, the clause). This means that although the pronouns can have a referent, they cannot have a direct relationship with the referent where the referent selects the pronoun. For instance, John said Mary cut him is grammatical because the two co-referents, John and him are separated structurally by Mary. This is why a sentence like John cut him where him refers to John is ungrammatical.
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The type of binding that applies to subsets of pronouns varies cross-linguistically. For instance, in German linguistics, pronouns can be split into two distinct categories — personal pronouns and d-pronouns. Although personal pronouns act identically to that of English personal pronouns (i.e. follow Principle B), d-pronouns follow yet another principle, Principle C, and function similarly to nouns in that they cannot have a direct relationship to an antecedent.
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)
- Julia arrived yesterday. I met her at the station. (Julia is the antecedent of her)
- When they saw us, the lions began roaring (the lions is the antecedent of they; as it comes after the pronoun it may be called a postcedent)
- Other personal pronouns in some circumstances:
- Terry and I were hoping no-one would find us. (Terry and I is the antecedent of us)
- You and Alice can come if you like. (you and Alice is the antecedent of the second – plural – you)
- Reflexive and reciprocal pronouns:
- Jack hurt himself. (Jack is the antecedent of himself)
- We were teasing each other. (we is the antecedent of each other)
- Relative pronouns:
- The woman who looked at you is my sister. (the woman is the antecedent of who)
Some other types, such as indefinite pronouns, are usually used without antecedents. Relative pronouns are used without antecedents in free relative clauses. Even third-person personal pronouns are sometimes used without antecedents ("unprecursed") – this applies to special uses such as dummy pronouns and generic they, as well as cases where the referent is implied by the context.
Inventory of English pronouns
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The table below lists English pronouns across a number of different syntactic contexts (Subject, Object, Possessive, Reflexive) according to the following features:
- person (1st, 2nd, 3rd person);
- number (singular/plural);
- gender (masculine, feminine, neuter, epicene)
|Person||Number/Gender||Subject||Object||Dependent possessive (determiner)||Independent possessive||Reflexive|
|Epicene/Plural||they||them||their||theirs||themself / themselves|
In addition to the personal pronouns exemplified in the above table, English also has other pronoun types, including demonstrative, relative, indefinite, and interrogative pronouns, as listed in the following table. For more detailed discussion, see the following subsections.
|this||who / whom / whose||one / one's / oneself||who / whom / whose|
|these||what||something / anything / nothing (things)||what|
|that||which||someone / anyone / no one (people)||which|
|those||that||somebody / anybody / nobody (people)|
|former / latter|
Personal and possessive
Personal pronouns may be classified by person, number, gender and case. English has three persons (first, second and third) and two numbers (singular and plural); in the third person singular there are also distinct pronoun forms for male, female and neuter gender.:52–53 Principal forms are shown in the adjacent table (see also English personal pronouns).
English personal pronouns have two cases, subject and object. Subject pronouns are used in subject position (I like to eat chips, but she does not). Object pronouns are used for the object of a verb or preposition (John likes me but not her).:52–53
Other distinct forms found in some languages include:
- Second person informal and formal pronouns (the T-V distinction), like tu and vous in French. Formal second person pronouns can also signify plurality in many languages. There is no such distinction in standard modern English, though Elizabethan English marked the distinction with thou (singular informal) and you (plural or singular formal). Some dialects of English have developed informal plural second person pronouns, for instance, "y'all" (Southern American English) and you guys (American English).
- Inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, which indicate whether or not the audience is included, that is, whether "we" means "you and I" or "they and I". There is no such distinction in English.
- Intensive (emphatic) pronouns, which re-emphasize a noun or pronoun that has already been mentioned. English uses the same forms as the reflexive pronouns; for example: I did it myself (contrast reflexive use, I did it to myself).
- Direct and indirect object pronouns, such as le and lui in French. English uses the same form for both; for example: Mary loves him (direct object); Mary sent him a letter (indirect object).
- Prepositional pronouns, used after a preposition. English uses ordinary object pronouns here: Mary looked at him.
- Disjunctive pronouns, used in isolation or in certain other special grammatical contexts, like moi in French. No distinct forms exist in English; for example: Who does this belong to? Me.
- Strong and weak forms of certain pronouns, found in some languages such as Polish.
Possessive pronouns are used to indicate possession (in a broad sense). Some occur as independent noun phrases: mine, yours, hers, ours, theirs. An example is: Those clothes are mine. Others act as a determiner and must accompany 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.) Those of the second type have traditionally also been described as possessive adjectives, and in more modern terminology as possessive determiners. The term "possessive pronoun" is sometimes restricted to the first type. Both types replace possessive noun phrases. As an example, Their crusade to capture our attention could replace The advertisers' crusade to capture our attention.:55–56
Reflexive and reciprocal
Reflexive pronouns are used when a person or thing acts on itself, for example, John cut himself. In English they all end in -self or -selves and must refer to a noun phrase elsewhere in the same clause.:55
Reciprocal pronouns refer to a reciprocal relationship (each other, one another). They must refer to a noun phrase in the same clause.:55 An example in English is: They do not like each other. In some languages, the same forms can be used as both reflexive and reciprocal pronouns.
Demonstrative pronouns (in English, this, that and their plurals these, those) often distinguish their targets by pointing or some other indication of position; for example, I'll take these. They may also be anaphoric, depending on an earlier expression for context, for example, A kid actor would try to be all sweet, and who needs that?:56
Indefinite pronouns, the largest group of pronouns, refer to one or more unspecified persons or things. One group in English includes compounds of some-, any-, every- and no- with -thing, -one and -body, for example: Anyone can do that. Another group, including many, more, both, and most, can appear alone or followed by of.:54–55 In addition,
- Distributive pronouns are used to refer to members of a group separately rather than collectively. (To each his own.)
- Negative pronouns indicate the non-existence of people or things. (Nobody thinks that.)
- Impersonal pronouns normally 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.)
Relative and interrogative
Relative pronouns in English include who, whom, whose, what, which and that). They rely on an antecedent, and refer back to people or things previously mentioned: People who smoke should quit now. They are used in relative clauses.:56 Relative pronouns can also be used as complementizers.
Relative pronouns can be used in an interrogative setting as interrogative pronouns. Interrogative pronouns ask which person or thing is meant. In reference to a person, one may use who (subject), whom (object) or whose (possessive); for example, Who did that? In colloquial speech, whom is generally replaced by who. English non-personal interrogative pronouns (which and what) have only one form.:56–57
In English and many other languages (e.g. French and Czech), the sets of relative and interrogative pronouns are nearly identical. Compare English: Who is that? (interrogative) and I know the woman who came (relative). In some other languages, interrogative pronouns and indefinite pronouns are frequently identical; for example, Standard Chinese 什么 shénme means "what?" as well as "something" or "anything".
Though the personal pronouns described above are the contemporary English pronouns, older forms of modern English (as used by Shakespeare, for example) use a slightly different set of personal pronouns as shown in the table. The difference is entirely in the second person. Though one would rarely find these older forms used in literature from recent centuries, they are nevertheless considered modern.
In English, kin terms like "mother," "uncle," "cousin" are a distinct word class from pronouns; however many Australian Aboriginal languages have more elaborated systems of encoding kinship in language including special kin forms of pronouns. In Murrinh-patha, for example, when selecting a nonsingular exclusive pronoun to refer to a group, the speaker will assess whether or not the members of the group belong to a common class of gender or kinship. If all of the members of the referent group are male, the MASCULINE form will be selected; if at least one is female, the FEMININE is selected, but if all the members are in a sibling-like kinship relation, a third SIBLING form is selected.  In Arabana-Wangkangurru, the speaker will use entirely different sets of pronouns depending on whether the speaker and the referent are or are not in a common moiety. See the following example:
They two [who are in the classificatory relationship of father and son] are fighting. (The people involved were a man and his wife's sister's son.)
See Australian Aboriginal kinship for more details.
Special uses of English pronouns
Some special uses of personal pronouns include:
- Generic you, where second person pronouns are used in an indefinite sense: You can't buy good old-fashioned bulbs these days.
- Generic they: In China they drive on the right.
- Gender non-specific uses, where a pronoun needs to be found to refer to a person whose gender is not specified. Solutions sometimes used in English include generic he and singular they. The singular they has gained popularity in LGBTQ+ culture to refer to those that identify as non-binary or genderqueer and as a way to refer to a person gender-neutrally. Vernacular usage of "yo" as a gender neutral pronoun has also been recorded among school students in Baltimore.
- Dummy pronouns (expletive pronouns), used to satisfy a grammatical requirement for a noun or pronoun, but contributing nothing to its meaning: It is raining.
- Resumptive pronouns, "intrusive" personal pronouns found (for example) in some relative clauses where a gap (trace) might be expected: This is the girl that I don't know what she said.
- Royal we, used to refer to a single person who is a monarch: We are not amused.
- Anaphora (linguistics)
- Gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns
- Generic antecedents
- Inalienable possession
- indefinite pronoun
- Phi features
- Pronoun game
- reciprocal pronoun
- reflexive pronoun
Personal pronouns in various languages
In other languages
- Bulgarian pronouns
- Cantonese pronouns
- Chinese pronouns
- Dutch grammar: Pronouns and determiners
- Esperanto grammar: Pronouns
- French pronouns
- German pronouns
- Ido pronouns
- Interlingua pronouns
- Irish morphology: Pronouns
- Italian grammar: Pronouns
- Japanese pronouns
- Korean pronouns
- Macedonian pronouns
- Novial: Pronouns
- Portuguese personal pronouns
- Proto-Indo-European pronouns
- Slovene pronouns
- Spanish grammar: Pronouns
- Vietnamese pronouns
- Not to be confused with prenominal, which means "before the noun". English adjectives are prenominal – the blue house — and most of the French adjectives are postnominal — la maison bleue.
- Bhat, Darbhe Narayana Shankara (2007). Pronouns (Paperback ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 1. ISBN 978-0199230242.
- Börjars, Kersti; Burridge, Kate (2010). Introducing English grammar (2nd ed.). London: Hodder Education. pp. 50–57. ISBN 978-1444109870.
- Loos, Eugene E.; Anderson, Susan; Day, Dwight H. Jr.; Jordan, Paul C.; Wingate, J. Douglas. "What is a pronominal?". Glossary of linguistic terms. SIL International.
- For example, Vulf Plotkin (The Language System of English, Universal Publishers, 2006, pp. 82–83) writes: "[...] Pronouns exemplify such a word class, or rather several smaller classes united by an important semantic distinction between them and all the major parts of speech. The latter denote things, phenomena and their properties in the ambient world. [...] Pronouns, on the contrary, do not denote anything, but refer to things, phenomena or properties without involving their peculiar nature."
- Postal, Paul (1966). Dinneen, Francis P. (ed.). "On So-Called "Pronouns" in English". Report of the Seventeenth Annual Round Table Meeting on Linguistics and Language Studies. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press: 177–206.
- For detailed discussion see George D. Morley, Explorations in Functional Syntax: A New Framework for Lexicogrammatical Analysis, Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2004, pp. 68–73.
- Simon, Horst J.; Wiese, Heike (2002). Pronouns - Grammar and Representation. Linguistics Today. p. 190. ISBN 9789027227737.
- Walsh, Michael James. 1976. The Muɹinypata Language of Northern Australia. The Australian National University.
- Hercus, L. A. (Luise Anna), 1926-2018. (1994). A grammar of the Arabana-Wangkangurru language, Lake Eyre Basin, South Australia. Canberra, Australia: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 0-85883-425-1. OCLC 32850800.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- "Yo as a Pronoun". Quick and Dirty Tips. Retrieved 2019-04-05.
- "Language Log: Yo". itre.cis.upenn.edu. Retrieved 2019-04-05.
- Wales, Katie (1995). Personal pronouns in present-day English (Digital print. ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521471022.
- Simon, Horst J. (2002). Pronouns - Grammar and Representation. Linguistics Today. ISBN 9789027227737.
- Bhat, Darbhe N.S. (2007). Pronouns. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199230242.
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