You use pronouns every day, and probably more often than you think. But there are also some common errors with pronouns that can be easily avoided. In this article, you'll learn the ins and outs of the different types of pronouns and how to use them correctly.
Pronouns are words that help you avoid repetition throughout your sentences by replacing nouns. There are eight different types of pronouns, which you'll use interchangeably depending on the circumstances.
This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.
The word 'pronoun' comes from the Latin 'pronomen,' with 'pro' meaning to stand in place of,' and 'nomen' meaning 'noun.' I don't know about you, but I find that to be very telling about the function of a pronoun. It literally replaces a noun.
If you've already used a common or proper noun in a previous sentence, then you'll want to avoid repeating it over and over. Otherwise, it might look something like this:
My car was totaled, so I took my car to the garage so they could fix the car and make the car safe to drive.
This is where pronouns come in handy. To avoid repeating the noun 'car,' I can use the pronoun 'it' and say:
My car was totaled, so I took it to the garage so they could fix it and make it safe to drive.
Yes, the pronoun 'it' is repeated quite a few times, but it's preferable to repeating 'car.' Of course, you can get creative and use different expressions to refer to the car, such as 'old machine' or the car's make.
It's as simple as that! All you need to do is choose the appropriate pronoun, place it where the noun would be, and you're on your way toward diverse and rich sentences.
Let's cover a few pronoun usage conventions to be aware of.
Pronouns can replace nouns, but only where the noun has been stated first. Otherwise, the reader or listener can be left feeling confused over what or whom you are referring to.
In grammar, the noun, noun clause, or noun phrase that gives meaning to the pronoun is the antecedent. For example, in the following sentence, Theo is the antecedent to the pronoun he.
Theo was feeling under the weather that day, so he couldn't go to the game.
Here's another example. In the following sentence, 'cat' is the antecedent to the pronoun 'it.'
The cat was so hungry it devoured its food.
It's worth noting that some pronouns don't need antecedents because it's obvious who they are referring to. You can omit the antecedent with the following pronouns:
When you use the above pronouns, it's clear who you are talking about, so you don't need to clarify it with an antecedent.
This is also sometimes with 'we' and 'our,' depending on the context.
You don't need antecedents with indefinite pronouns, either. You'll learn more about those later.
Throughout this article, I'll mark the antecedents in bold and their pronouns in italics, so you can easily spot them.
When choosing a pronoun, you must ensure it's the correct pronoun for the noun. Should it be masculine or feminine? Is it singular or plural? Is it a living being or an object?
For example, in the following sentence, the pronoun 'him' is incorrect since it's singular, whereas 'kids' is plural. Moreover, 'him' is a gendered pronoun (masculine), whereas 'kids' is gender-neutral unless otherwise specified.
The kids finish kindergarten soon; I need to pick him up.
Instead, you should say:
The kids finish kindergarten soon; I need to pick them up.
In the following sections, when we're discussing the different types of pronouns, you'll hear about subject and object pronouns. That's because some categories of pronouns will have two variants for each pronoun: one for if the pronoun is the subject of the sentence and one for if it's the object.
Don't worry; it sounds more complicated than it is. Take a look at the following two sentences, where we'll imagine an interaction between Sarah and John:
She tutors him in geography.
He helps her with math in return.
In the first sentence, Sarah is the subject of the sentence because she is the one doing the teaching. Therefore, we use the subject pronoun 'she.' In the second sentence, however, Sarah is the object of the sentence because she receives the teaching. So we use the object pronoun 'her.'
You'll also notice I switched between the subject pronoun 'he' and the object pronoun 'him' to talk about John.
In many instances, pronouns turn into demonstrative determiners, depending on their placement in the sentence. The difference is that while demonstrative pronouns stand in for nouns, demonstrative determiners modify nouns—a bit like adjectives.
Here's an example:
This idea is terrible!
In the example above, the word 'this' isn't necessary to the sentence's meaning. That's because 'this' simply modifies the noun, making it a demonstrative determiner. It's all about where the word is placed in the sentence.
Here are some examples where demonstrative pronouns ('this,' 'that,' 'these,' and 'those') have become demonstrative determiners:
That bread is out of date.
Whose are these glasses?
What are those sneakers doing on the table?
Now we've covered some ground rules, let's explore the different types of pronouns. There are indeed quite a few, so hold on to your hat!
Personal pronouns are used to refer to, you guessed it, a person. So they'll often have a proper noun for an antecedent.
Personal pronouns are divided into two categories - subject personal pronouns and object personal pronouns.
Here's a list of subject personal pronouns:
And here are the object person pronouns:
You'll have noticed there are three numbers associated with personal pronouns - first, second and third.
The first person refers to the speaker. The second person refers to the person being spoken to, and the third person refers to a third party (who can be either present or not).
Then, these three kinds of pronouns are split into two categories: singular or plural. Singular pronouns are for one person, and plural pronouns are for two or more people.
You might recognize this format from verb conjugation. Whenever you conjugate a verb to use it in a sentence, you'll want to use the format that matches the pronoun being used.
'You' remains the same, whether singular or plural, which means you'll need to look at the context to infer whether there is one person or multiple people.
You'll notice that the personal pronoun 'I' is capitalized. It is the only one. The other pronouns aren't capitalized unless you use title case as a writing style.
So why is the 'I' capitalized and not the others - not even 'me' or 'we?'
Some theories say that it helps the word stand out on the page. Otherwise, an 'i' standing alone might be difficult to spot. The only other single-letter word in the English language - 'a' - takes up a bit more space, so it doesn't need any help to be more visual.
And by the way, no other language does this. Just English!
However strange it may seem, it's just a rule we must follow.
On some occasions, you can use the pronouns 'they' and 'them' singularly. The first one is if you're unsure of the person's gender. For example:
Somebody called for you, but they didn't leave a name.
We know somebody called, but we don't know anything about them. Certainly, nothing that could indicate their gender. So to use 'he' or 'she' in this context would be to make an assumption. Therefore, it's best to use 'they.'
The other time you can use 'they'/'them' in a singular way is to refer to a non-binary individual who has chosen these as their pronouns. For example:
Sam won't be joining us tonight because they're preparing for a presentation at work.
I explained earlier that personal pronouns are used to talk about people. Hence the name. However, there's one personal pronoun that doesn't refer to a person, and that's 'it.'
'It' can be used to talk about an animal, a place, or a thing... but not a person. For example:
I'm looking for my laptop; have you seen it?
There's a new Italian restaurant in town; we should try it.
This bird doesn't look too good; it must have fallen from a tree.
Still, it fits into the category of personal pronouns. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you since, with all things English grammar, there are no rules without exceptions!
Time to look at some sentence examples that use personal pronouns. You'll see, they're straightforward and quite common. I'll underline the personal pronouns so they stand out.
There won't be any antecedents to underline since that would require an additional sentence for each example to add some context. So to keep it simple, we'll assume that a conversation has taken place and you already know to whom each sentence is referring.
Note that the verbs are conjugated differently according to the pronoun used.
She has yet to arrive.
How long have they worked there?
I'm delighted to meet you.
The job already belongs to him.
I haven't spoken to her yet.
Can you show us the way?
Where has he been?
What breed of dog is it?
I'm tired; shall we go home now?
Are you talking about me?
Let's go with them.
Relative pronouns introduce a relative clause. They are like bridge words that connect the relative (or dependent) clause to a dependent clause.
"So what is a dependent clause?" I hear you ask. Let me explain.
Imagine a sentence where you have a main clause and a relative clause. The main clause is the part that relays the most important part of the sentence. It's the part that gets to the point, if you will. Then, the relative clause comes along to give more information. And you link the two together with a relative pronoun.
Here's a list of relative pronouns:
Now let's take a look at an example:
John chose vanilla ice cream, which is his favorite.
In the above sentence, "John chose vanilla ice cream" is the main clause, and "which is his favorite" is the relative clause. "Which" is the relative pronoun that joins the two together.
Here are some more examples:
I adopted the dog that we saw online.
That man, whose name I cannot pronounce, joined our seminar today.
The party, which I didn't get to until 11 pm, was great fun.
The choice between using 'who' or 'whom' trips many people up, so let's set the record straight.
Remember how earlier we spoke about subject and object pronouns? If you don't, head back to the first main section and re-read that bit. Because if you understand that, then the 'who'/'whom' conundrum is actually quite simple.
'Who' is a subject pronoun, and 'whom' is an object pronoun. Therefore, if the person you're referring to is the subject of the sentence, use 'who'; if they're the object of the sentence, use 'whom.' Check out the following examples:
Who wants to join us for lunch?
Do you know the person with whom she's meeting?
Now take a look at this sentence. The person spoken about is both the subject and object of the sentence:
Who's the lucky guy for whom you bought this gift?
Demonstrative pronouns are used to refer to a specific noun. You could think of it as the verbal equivalent of pointing.
They also tell us whether the thing or person is near or far away and whether there are one or several.
All that just with one word? Yup. Not only that, there are only four in the English language. Here they are:
And here are some sentence examples:
Whose idea was this?
That is a beautiful house.
I think I need new glasses; these are pretty rugged.
You should wear the jeans you had on last night; those look great on you.
In some ways, indefinite pronouns are the opposite of demonstrative pronouns. They refer to something unspecific, unspecified, or unidentified.
Indefinite pronouns don't have antecedents for that reason.
Here's a list of indefinite pronouns:
Here are some examples of indefinite pronouns in a sentence:
Has anybody seen my glasses?
I broke my pencil: I need another one to fill out this form.
She didn't really like either option.
Most pronouns are either singular or plural, which makes it pretty straightforward to get the noun-pronoun agreement right and to know how to conjugate the verb in the sentence.
But what about those that can be both? Like:
Or those that are singular even though they seem like they should be plural? For example:
Let's start with that last point. Remember to use a singular verb when you use one of these pronouns, even though you're referring to more than one thing or person. For example:
Everyone is rushing to get there on time.
It seems a little counterintuitive since 'everyone' refers to more than one person, so you might think you need to use 'are.' But that's not the case.
As for those pronouns that can be both, you'll have to use the context to decide whether it should be singular or plural. Let's have a look at two examples using the word 'all'; one where it's singular and one where it's plural:
I'm afraid all the food has gone bad.
All the boys in my class are taller than me.
In the first example, 'all' refers to 'food,' which is singular. Therefore I used the singular conjugation 'has,' not 'have.'
In the second example, 'all' refers to 'boys,' which is plural, so I used 'are,' not 'is.'
Reflexive pronouns help you refer to the person or thing that's the subject of the verb. In other words, if the subject and the object of the verb are the same, you can use a reflexive pronoun to replace the object noun.
Take the following sentence as an example:
She's talking to herself again.
The subject of the sentence is 'she,' and the reflexive pronoun 'herself' helps you refer back to 'she' so that you know it is 'she' that she is talking to.
If you were to simply say, "She's talking to her.", this would imply that there are two separate people in the conversation.
Here's a list of reflexive pronouns:
When using these pronouns, you must ensure the one you choose matches the subject of the verb. So if the verb's subject is 'I,' you must use 'myself.' You wouldn't be able to use 'I' with 'himself,' for instance. But take the following example:
I heard him talking to himself.
Although the above sentence features 'I,' the subject of the verb is still 'him,' hence why you can use 'himself.' You couldn't say:
I heard him talking to myself. ❌
Let's take a look at some more examples:
He works for himself.
Have you considered advertising yourself online?
Cats love to clean themselves.
As a reminder, reflexive pronouns can only be used when the subject and object of a sentence are the same.
Oh... there's one exception to that last sentence! And that's when you use a reflexive pronoun to emphasize the noun. For example:
And then, Superman himself showed up!
When used in this way, we call them 'intensive pronouns.'
Here are some more examples:
The audiobook is narrated by no other than the author himself.
We will do it ourselves.
She can check it out herself if she doesn't believe us.
Here's a list of possessive adjectives:
Remember, because the possessive pronoun replaces the possessive noun, it doesn't need an apostrophe to show ownership.
Here's what it looks like when a possessive pronoun is used in a sentence:
That bag is mine.
In the above sentence, did you spot the bonus demonstrative pronoun? It's 'that'!
Let's have a look at some more examples:
I found this bottle of water on the table - is it yours?
Sally's upset because the ball that was lost is hers.
The rest of the night is ours.
Want to know who did something, whose coat that is, or which way to the station? If you're looking for answers, interrogative pronouns are your go-to.
Here are the interrogative pronouns we use:
Usually, interrogative pronouns are found in sentences with question marks (unless it's an indirect question), and they lead the sentence. Unlike most other pronouns, they don't have an antecedent since the noun they refer to tends to be found in the question.
For example, in the following sentence, 'which' is the question and 'salted caramel' is the answer.
Which flavor would you like?
I'd like salted caramel, please.
In any other type of sentence, 'salted caramel' would be the antecedent. For example:
The flavor that he wants is salted caramel.
Here are some more examples of interrogative pronoun sentences:
What topic did you write your paper on?
Whose sweater are you wearing?
Who do you think you are?
There are only two reciprocal pronouns, and they are:
They are used when one person does something and another does the same. It works with animals, things, and ideas, too.
Here are some example sentences:
You're lucky that your kids love each other and get on well.
I love the way my colleagues and I all support one another.
My husband and I still love each other very much after 40 years.
The teacher said we all had to get on with one another.
That concludes our overview of all the different types of pronouns. But before I go, I wanted to mention pronouns and the role they play in gender identity. This deserves an article of its own, but it's important to reference here that pronouns play a huge role in gender identity and the evolution of the language that we use to refer to one another.
As discussed earlier, 'they' is a pronoun commonly used for those who identify as non-binary, but it's by far the only one. Not to mention the many other pronouns that exist for trans, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming folks to use.
You can do your own research around appropriate pronouns, but the best thing is always to listen to what a person tells you they'd like to be called when not using their first name... or ask them.
Hopefully, you'll agree that despite the large number of pronouns that exist in the English language, the concept itself remains pretty straightforward.
You'll find it isn't necessary to memorize the names of the categories that pronouns fall under. It's more important that you use them appropriately, which mainly comes with practice.
Having said that, grammar exists for a reason; to help you make sense of the different rules of usage. So anytime there's something you need help understanding or need clarification on, you can come back to this article.
Don't forget to check out our other grammar articles in our free online Grammar Book. We're covering everything you need to know to speak top-notch English!
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