Pronouns

We can use a noun to refer to a person, place, thing, or idea. We can also use pronouns to refer to a person, place, thing, or idea. Pronouns are function words that stand in for some other noun. (The possessive forms of the pronouns are called possessive adjectives.) A pronoun has no real meaning of its own. To figure out what someone means by a word like “he” or “it” or even “we,” you have to look at the context.

Many people make mistakes when using pronouns. The most serious problem is when they use a pronoun without making it clear what they mean by that pronoun. For example, you may not be able to figure out who or what the word it is supposed to mean. Another problem arises with the grammatical number of a pronoun. How many persons do you mean when you say “you”? Can you use “they” to mean just one unidentified or unspecific person? Another common problem is to use the wrong case of pronoun (e.g., saying “me” instead of “I” or “I” instead of “me”).

Find the Pronouns!

In the following paragraph, the pronouns and possessive adjectives are underlined:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—, then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Context

The English word context comes from the Latin word that meant “weaving together.” The word context implies that a word is somehow connected to other words. Grammarians use the word context to mean the words that are used with another word or phrase and that help explain its meaning.

Context can also include the situation in which the word is used, including the identity of the speaker or writer. Note that in this scene from Tarzan of the Apes, when Jane says “me,” “me” means Jane. But when Tarzan says “me,” “me” is supposed to mean Tarzan.

To understand what a writer or speaker intended a pronoun to mean, you have to look at the context. The noun that the pronoun is supposed to represent is called the referent. In other words, it’s the noun to which the pronoun refers. The referent is sometimes called the antecedent because it usually antecedes (i.e., comes before) the pronoun. I prefer the term referent because the referent sometimes appears after the pronoun.

When I write or edit someone else’s writing, I use a Word macro that highlights all of the pronouns and possessive adjectives (the possessive forms of the pronouns) in turquoise. Then, as I check to make sure that each pronoun and possessive adjective has a clear referent, I remove the highlighting. The macro also highlights the letters ing, to draw my attention to present participles.

Grammatical Person (Personal Pronouns)

Grammatical person deals with the relationship that other nouns or pronouns have to the speaker or writer. The first-person singular pronoun (I, me) refers to the person who is speaking or writing. The first-person singular pronouns (we, us) refer to a group of people to whom the speaker or writer belongs. The second-person pronoun (you) refers to the speaker or writer’s audience. In English, we use the same pronoun for singular and plural second-person personal pronouns. The third-person pronouns are used to refer to anyone or anything else (he/him, she/her, it, they/them).

Grammatical case

Grammatical case refers to how that noun relates to a particular verb (i.e., is that noun the subject of a verb or its direct or indirect object, etc.). In many European languages, you have to mark each noun, along with the adjectives that describe it, for case. In English, we don’t mark any of our nouns for case. We only mark pronouns. Also, we have only two cases. (German has four, and Latin has seven!) So we really have no excuse for getting it wrong. In English, if the pronoun is the subject of a verb, it is in the nominative case. If the pronoun is not the subject of a verb, then it is in the objective case. It’s really that simple.

Pronouns also come in a possessive form, just as nouns have a possessive form. Note, however, that the possessive form of a pronoun does not have an apostrophe. His and hers don’t have apostrophes. Neither does its, when its is used as a possessive. It’s is a contraction of it is, which is a different thing altogether.

In English, we also have reflexive pronouns, which we use for indicating the reflexive form of a verb. For example, a barber may shave a customer, or he may shave himself. The reflexive form of a verb is used to indicate an action that the actor is doing to itself. Some people use the word myself as a fancy way of saying me. Try to avoid that usage.

Number and case of personal pronouns
Nominative Objective Reflexive Possessive Possessive adjective
Singular
First person I me myself mine my
Second person you you yourself yours your
Third person he, she, it him, her, it himself, herself, itself his, hers, its his, her, its
Plural
First person we us ourselves ours our
Second person you you yourself yours your
Third person they them themselves theirs their

Here are some simple sentence diagrams to show you how to use the proper case of pronoun
The subject of a verb is in the nominative case. So is the predicate complement of a linking verb. A linking verb just links something to the subject:

i-am-i

Here’s a cheat-sheet to show which pronoun to use when:

Relative pronouns

A relative pronoun is a pronoun that is used to introduce a relative clause, which is used to describe a noun. In other words, that relative clause “relates” to that noun. There are five relative pronouns in English: who, whom, whose, which, and that.

Who and whom are used to refer to people and sometimes to animals. Notice that you should use who when the relative pronoun is the subject of a verb and whom when the relative pronoun is not the subject of a verb:

  • I am the cat who walks by himself.
  • She is the woman whom I saw last night.

cat-by-himself

i-saw-her

 

Which is used to refer to things. That can be used to refer to people or things (but it’s better to use who or whom, instead).

Some relative pronouns
Nominative Nominative (determiner) Objective Objective (determiner) Possessive Possessive adjective
who whoever whom whomever whose whose
which whichever which whichever whose whose
that that that that whose whose

The suffix –ever is added to turn a relative or interrogative pronoun into a determiner.

  • Wherever you go, I shall go.
  • I shall give this to whoever wants it.
  • I shall give it to whomever I want.

Note that we sometimes use the adverb ever as an intensifier, to express confusion or surprise:

  • Who ever would want to do that?
  • What ever could he have wanted?

I’ll get into more of a description of relative pronouns and relative clauses when I talk about adjectival phrases, under sentence structure.

Interrogative Pronouns

We can also use pronouns to introduce a question. They are called interrogative pronouns. They include who, what which, and whose. (Some of the other words that are used for asking questions—where, when, and why—are not pronouns, they are adverbs.)

Interrogative Pronouns
Nominative Objective Possessive
person who whom whose
person/thing what what whose
person/thing which which whose