You use pronouns every day. In fact, even if you don’t know what pronouns are, you use them—and in this sentence alone, we’ve now used pronouns four times.
Pronouns are words (or phrases) you substitute for nouns when your reader or listener already knows which noun you’re referring to. For example, you might say, “I have a dog. She’s brown and white.” There’s no need to clarify that you’re describing your dog in the second sentence because you already mentioned her in the first. With the pronoun she’s, you can avoid annoying repetition of dog.
Pronouns do a whole lot more than helping us avoid repetitiveness. They provide context, make your sentences’ meanings clearer, and shape how we perceive people and things. Read on to learn about the different ways we use pronouns and how to use them to construct sentences.
Table of contents
What is a pronoun?
In English grammar, pronouns are a type of generic noun that can represent any other noun. Their job is to make communication faster and more efficient because you don’t have to repeat the same word over and over again. Some pronoun examples include:
Pronouns are one of the eight traditional parts of speech, and they are also sometimes understood as making up a small subcategory of nouns. The distinguishing characteristic of pronouns is that they can be substituted for nouns. For instance, if you’re telling a story about your sister Sarah, the story will begin to sound repetitive if you keep saying or writing Sarah over and over again:
You could try to mix it up by sometimes referring to Sarah as “my sister,” but then it sounds like you’re referring to two different people:
Instead, you can use the pronoun she to refer to Sarah after introducing her:
Pronouns can replace both proper and common nouns. Certain pronouns have specific rules about when they can be used, such as the way it should never be used to refer to a human being. We explain all of the different types and their associated rules below. Notice that some pronouns (such as which and whose) can function as more than one type, depending on how they’re deployed in a sentence.
What is an antecedent
Remember how we mentioned that in order to use a pronoun, you need to introduce the noun first? That noun has a name: an antecedent.
Antecedents are necessary because pronouns are versatile. Think about it—it can refer to a bike, a tree, a car, or a city, and we just used it to refer to something else entirely: pronouns’ versatility. Take a look at these examples, in which pronouns are bolded and the nouns they’re referring to are underlined, to see how antecedents and pronouns work together:
Antecedents aren’t necessary when the reader/listener knows who or what you’re discussing. Generally, you don’t need an antecedent for a pronoun like I, you, we, our, or me. But sometimes you do need an antecedent in this kind of situation—like when you’re giving a speech where you introduce yourself and your credentials before discussing the subject of your speech.
There are also circumstances where you might not introduce the noun first and instead reveal it only after using pronouns to refer to your subject. You might do this for dramatic or poetic effect in a piece of creative writing, for example.
When you think of pronouns, you most likely think first of personal pronouns. Personal pronouns are pronouns that change form based on their grammatical person—that is, based on whether they refer to the person speaking or writing (the first person), the person or thing being spoken to (the second person), or the person or thing being spoken about (the third person). Here is a list of the main personal pronouns :
Here are a couple of example sentences with personal pronouns bolded and their antecedents underlined:
Relative pronouns are another class of pronouns. They connect relative clauses to independent clauses. Often, they introduce additional information about something mentioned in the sentence. Relative pronouns include these words:
Traditionally, who refers to people, and which and that refer to animals or things. Here are a few examples of relative pronouns at work:
Who vs. whom—subject and object pronouns
Knowing when to use who and when to use whom trips a lot of writers up. The difference is actually pretty simple: Who is for the subject of a sentence or clause, and whom is for the object of a verb or preposition. Here are a couple of a quick examples:
See the difference? Who is a subject pronoun. It’s in the subjective case, just like I, he, she, they, and we. Whom is an object pronoun, which puts it in the objective case along with me, him, her, them, and us. An easy way to determine whether you should use who or whom in a sentence is to answer the sentence’s question by substituting another pronoun that is affected by case. With the new pronoun in place, determine whether the sentence still makes sense. For example:
Figuring out when to use whom can be more difficult than knowing when to use who because it typically comes before the sentence’s verb when used in a question, as it often is—notice how the structure of the object pronoun example sentence needed to change more dramatically than that of the subject pronoun sentence.
That, this, these, and those are demonstrative pronouns. They can point directly to an antecedent or replace one that has already been mentioned or is clear through context.
This is used for singular items that are nearby. These is used for multiple items that are nearby. The distance can be physical or metaphorical. Take a look at these examples:
That is used for singular items that are farther away. Those is used for multiple items that are farther away. Again, the distance can be physical or metaphorical. Here are a few examples of these pronouns in action:
Indefinite pronouns are used to refer generally to a person or thing that doesn’t need to be specifically identified or has already been mentioned. Here are some common indefinite pronouns:
- no one
Here are a few examples of indefinite pronouns in sentences:
When an indefinite pronoun functions as the subject of a sentence or clause, it usually takes singular verbs.
Reflexive pronouns are forms of personal pronouns that end in –self or –selves:
You can use a reflexive pronoun as the object of a verb or preposition to refer back to the subject of the sentence or clause Here are a few examples:
In the third example above, the antecedent is the implied you that is the subject of an imperative sentence.
Using myself when you mean me is a common mistake writers and speakers make. Reflexive pronouns are correct only when the subject and object of a verb are the same. If you’re using a pronoun as an object but it refers to an antecedent that is not the subject of the sentence or clause, you use an object pronoun instead:
Intensive pronouns look the same as reflexive pronouns, but their purpose is different. Intensive pronouns add emphasis by repeating their antecedent noun or pronoun. Conceptualizing the difference between them and reflexive pronouns can be challenging because the emphasis isn’t always obvious. Take a look at these examples of intensive pronouns and examine how they’re different from the examples in the previous section:
If you can remove a pronoun from a sentence and it loses emphasis but its meaning stays the same, it’s most likely an intensive pronoun. Compare these two sentences:
See how the second one emphasizes that the speaker had no help in building their house? Intensive pronouns can help you express pride, shock, disbelief, credulousness (or incredulousness), or another strong emotion. Here are a few more examples:
Possessive pronouns are the forms that personal pronouns take to show possession or another kind of relationship to a noun. They include the following:
The possessive pronouns listed above can also be called possessive adjectives since they modify nouns. Take a look at these examples of possessive adjectives in action:
Each possessive pronoun also has a form called the independent possessive. They look like this:
When you use an independent possessive pronoun, you drop the noun that the pronoun is expressing a relationship to. Here are a couple of examples:
Interrogative pronouns are used in questions. These are the interrogative pronouns:
Here are a few examples of interrogative pronouns at play:
There are only two reciprocal pronouns: each other and one another.
These pronouns describe a mutual relationship between two or more elements. Take a look at these examples:
Distributive pronouns refer to nouns as individual elements of larger groups. They enable you to single out individuals while acknowledging that they’re part of a group. Distributive pronouns include the following:
Here are a few examples of distributive pronouns in sentences:
More pronoun examples
As you can see, pronouns do a lot. And there are a lot of them. To make them even more complicated, many pronouns change forms when they’re used in different positions within a sentence or based on number, gender, person, or case.
Take a look at the different types of pronouns and their forms at a glance:
|Type||Pronouns in this category||Example sentences|
|Personal||I/me, you, they/them, he/him, she/her, it, we/us||
|Relative||that, what, which, who, whom, whose||
|Demonstrative||this, that, these, those||
|Indefinite||another, any, anybody, anyone, anything, both, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, none, no one, one, other, some, somebody, someone, such||
|Reflexive||myself, yourself/yourselves, themself/themselves, herself, himself, oneself, itself, ourselves||
|Intensive||myself, yourself/yourselves, themself/themselves, herself, himself, oneself, itself, ourselves||
|Possessive||my/mine, your/yours, their/theirs, his, her/hers, its, our/ours, whose||
|Interrogative||what, which, who, whose||
|Reciprocal||each other, one another||
|Distributive||Either, each, neither, any, none||
Pronouns and gender identity
You might have noticed pronouns listed in some of your colleagues’ and friends’ email signatures or social media profiles. You might have even been prompted to list your own pronouns in your profiles and communications. While historically only the personal pronouns he/him/his and she/her/hers were used for individuals, based on their perceived gender, pronoun usage is broader and more descriptive today.
Many people use gender-neutral language like they/them/theirs and zie/hir/hirs because they feel these pronouns express their gender identity more accurately than she or he. The most common gender-neutral pronoun is the singular they. Today, it’s not uncommon to see the singular they as the default neutral pronoun. It’s what we use on the Grammarly blog, and for writers across the internet, it’s a concise, catch-all pronoun that can fit just about any sentence. However, language is constantly evolving, and new types of singular third-person pronouns have emerged that refer to people entirely without reference to gender, such as noun-self pronouns.
>>Read More: A Guide to Personal Pronouns and How They’ve Evolved
Gender-neutral and gender-inclusive pronouns
When somebody tells you their pronouns, using their pronouns is an act of respect. Think of it like spelling or pronouncing that person’s name correctly—they’re the authority on who they are and how they express themselves, and referring to them the way they’ve asked you to refer to them affirms this.
For some gender-neutral and gender-inclusive pronouns, the different forms to use are obvious. For others, they aren’t. Take a look at this table that contains some of the most common gender-neutral and inclusive pronouns:
|Subject||Object||Possessive Adjective||Independent Possessive||Reflexive|
If you ever aren’t sure of the correct pronouns to use when referring to somebody, just ask them! And if you accidentally use the wrong pronoun, simply apologize for doing so and make an effort to use the correct pronoun in future conversations.
Grammarly helps you write more confidently
Writing is like completing a puzzle, and pronouns are important pieces of that puzzle. After you’ve written your first draft, Grammarly’s writing suggestions catch mistakes you might have made (with pronouns or any other part of speech) and help you get your tone just right, so your writing communicates your message exactly the way you intend.
This article was originally written in 2016. It’s been updated to include new information.