What Is a Pronoun? | Definition, Types & Examples
A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun, often to avoid the need to repeat the same noun over and over. Like nouns, pronouns can refer to people, things, concepts, and places. Most sentences contain at least one noun or pronoun.
People tend to use “pronouns” to mean personal pronouns specifically, but there are many other kinds of pronouns that are just as important to English grammar. The words highlighted in bold below are all pronouns.
Table of contents
- How are pronouns used in sentences?
- Pronouns vs. nouns
- Pronouns vs. determiners
- Personal pronouns (first-, second-, and third-person)
- Demonstrative pronouns
- Interrogative pronouns
- Relative pronouns
- Indefinite pronouns
- Reciprocal pronouns
- Dummy pronouns (expletives)
- Other interesting language articles
- Frequently asked questions
How are pronouns used in sentences?
The main function of pronouns is to replace nouns. Because of this, they are used in sentences in similar ways to nouns.
Like nouns, pronouns commonly serve as the subject of a sentence, followed by a verb (a word expressing an action).
A pronoun can also function as the object in a sentence—either a direct or indirect object:
- The direct object is something or someone that is directly acted upon by the verb.
- The indirect object is someone or something that receives the direct object.
The antecedent of a pronoun is the noun that it refers back to. It’s usually mentioned in the text before the pronoun, but sometimes it comes just after it in a sentence. The antecedent may also be something the person you’re speaking to said. Pronoun-antecedent agreement means ensuring that the pronoun you use matches its antecedent in number, person, and gender.
When you use any type of pronoun, it’s important to ensure that the antecedent is clear and unambiguous. If there is any ambiguity, use the noun instead. For example, below, “it” would be unclear, as it could refer to either the interview or the test.
Pronouns vs. nouns
While pronouns constitute a relatively small class of words that tends not to change over time, nouns are a much broader class that is constantly expanding. Like pronouns, nouns refer to things, people, places, and concepts, but they do so with much greater specificity.
Like pronouns, nouns can function as the head of a noun phrase and as the object or subject of a verb. A complete sentence may consist of just a noun and a verb (“Jeremy spoke.”), just as it could of a pronoun and a verb (“He spoke.”).
Unlike pronouns, nouns are fixed in form—they don’t change spellings depending on their grammatical role in a sentence. For example, while the third-person masculine pronoun “he” becomes “him” when used as an object, the noun “man” doesn’t change.
Pronouns vs. determiners
Many pronouns are closely related to determiners, being spelled similarly (or identically) and expressing related meanings. For example, possessive pronouns like “yours” are closely related to possessive determiners like “your”; and demonstrative pronouns like “that” are identical to the demonstrative determiners.
The grammatical distinction between the two is that pronouns stand on their own as the subject or object of a verb, whereas determiners are only used to modify nouns, not acting as subjects or objects in their own right.
Personal pronouns (first-, second-, and third-person)
Personal pronouns are words like “he” that refer to yourself, the person you’re addressing, or other people and things. They usually refer to an antecedent but may occur without one when the reference is self-evident (e.g., “I” always refers to the person saying or writing it).
Personal pronouns can change their form based on:
- Person (first-, second-, or third-person)
- Number (singular or plural)
- Gender (masculine, feminine, neuter, or epicene)
- Case (subject, object, possessive, or reflexive/intensive)
The impersonal pronoun “one” is used in general statements about no particular person. It has fewer forms than the personal pronouns but is otherwise used in the same way.
The four demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, and those) are used to indicate something previously mentioned or, in conversation, something that is clear from the context. For example, in the sentence “Take this,” “this” has no explicit antecedent, but it would be clear in context that it referred to whatever object you were being given.
The demonstrative pronouns give information about the relative closeness (literal or figurative) of the things they refer to, especially when they’re contrasted with each other:
- The “near” demonstrative this (singular) or these (plural) indicates something close to you.
- The “far” demonstrative that (singular) or those (plural) indicates something farther from you.
Interrogative pronouns are used (along with other types of interrogative words) to introduce questions. The interrogative pronouns are:
- What and which, used to ask questions about things
- Who and whom, used to ask about people
- Whose, used to ask about ownership
A relative pronoun is used to introduce a relative clause—a phrase that usually supplies more information about the preceding noun. They have a lot in common with interrogative pronouns. The relative pronouns are:
- Which(ever), that, and what(ever), used in relation to things
- Who(ever) and whom(ever), used in relation to people
- Whose, used to indicate ownership
Relative pronouns are often omitted in practice (e.g., “the book [that] I read”). There’s nothing wrong with doing this as long as it doesn’t create ambiguity.
Indefinite pronouns are words like “somebody” that refer to an unspecified person or thing. Many of them are formed using some combination of some-, any-, every-, or no- with -thing, -one, -where, or -body.
There are also various indefinite pronouns used to describe quantity, such as “little,” “many,” “none,” and “enough.” And there are distributive pronouns like “neither” and “each” that allow you to distinguish between options.
The impersonal pronoun “one” can also be regarded as indefinite.
Reciprocal pronouns are used to indicate a reciprocal relationship between two people or things, where the members of a group each perform the same action relative to the other(s). The English reciprocal pronouns are each other and one another.
Some writers claim that “each other” should only be used to refer to groups of two and “one another” to groups of three or more. But this distinction is rejected by most style guides and not borne out in practice; you can use the two interchangeably.
Dummy pronouns (expletives)
A dummy pronoun (also called an expletive) is a pronoun that doesn’t have any explicit meaning but is necessary to the sentence structure. Unlike other pronouns, dummy pronouns don’t actually replace a noun.
The two words used as dummy pronouns in English are it and there. Note that both words can also fulfill other grammatical roles. Dummy pronouns are commonly used to talk about the weather, to emphasize certain elements in a sentence, or to introduce the existence of something.
Other interesting language articles
If you want to know more about nouns, pronouns, verbs, and other parts of speech, make sure to check out some of our other language articles with explanations and examples.
Frequently asked questions
- What are preferred pronouns?
The term preferred pronouns is used to mean the (third-person) personal pronouns a person identifies with and would like to be referred to by. People usually state the subject and object pronoun (e.g., “she/her”) but may also include the possessive (e.g., “she/her/hers”).
Most people go by the masculine “he/him,” the feminine “she/her,” the gender-neutral singular “they/them,” or some combination of these. There are also neopronouns used to express nonbinary gender identity, such as “xe/xem.” These are less common than the singular “they.”
The practice of stating one’s preferred pronouns (e.g., in a professional context or on a social media profile) is meant to promote inclusion for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. The first- and second-person pronouns (“I” and “you”) are not included, since they’re the same for everyone.
- What is the definition of a pronoun?
A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun. Like nouns, pronouns refer to people, things, concepts, or places. Most sentences contain at least one noun or pronoun.
A pronoun can serve as the subject or object in a sentence, and it will usually refer back (or sometimes forward) to an antecedent—the noun that the pronoun stands in for. Pronouns are used to avoid the need to repeat the same nouns over and over.
- What are the different types of pronouns?
Pronouns can be categorized into many types, all of which are very commonly used in English:
- What’s the difference between a noun and a pronoun?
Pronouns are words like “I,” “she,” and “they” that are used in a similar way to nouns. They stand in for a noun that has already been mentioned or refer to yourself and other people.
Pronouns can function just like nouns as the head of a noun phrase and as the subject or object of a verb. However, pronouns change their forms (e.g., from “I” to “me”) depending on the grammatical context they’re used in, whereas nouns usually don’t.
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