by Michael Swan


Examples: I, you, herself, ours, who, nothing

The term 'pronoun' is used for a loose group of words that, in various ways, stand in for noun phrases. While a noun phrase (e.g. my youngest brother) may have a specific, relatively unchanging reference, pronouns are 'general-purpose words' that change their reference according to the context (for example, he means 'the male person being talked about', regardless of who this happens to be).

Personal pronouns: I, me, you, he, him, she, her, it, we, us, they, them, one

Despite the name, these can refer to people or things. They are used when it is unnecessary or impracticable to identify a person or thing more precisely, usually because it is clear who or what is meant.

I ( = the speaker or writer) miss you ( = the hearer or reader).

Look at him!

Personal pronouns often refer back to people or things that have been mentioned before.

Jane couldn't find the house. She knew it was somewhere on the left.

It often has a very indefinite meaning ('the situation'); it can also be used as a filler when there is no real subject.

It's terrible! Is it raining?

They/them is often used to refer back to an indefinite singular expression such as anybody or a person. This is perfectly correct in an informal style.

I hate it when a person doesn't tell you what they're thinking,

Has anybody got a £1 coin on them?

One is an indefinite personal pronoun meaning something like 'people in general'; you can be used in the same way.

Where does one pay? / Where do you pay?

Most of the personal pronouns have different forms (I/me he/him etc) according to whether or not they are the subjects of clauses. Together with who/whom, they are the only words in modern English that change in this way.

Reflexive/emphatic pronouns: myself, yourself etc

These are used instead of personal pronouns when the reference is back to the subject or object of the same clause.

I cut myself shaving.

I'm going to tell John the truth about himself.

These pronouns can also be used for emphasis, in the sense of 'this person/thing and nobody/nothing else'.

The President himself sent us an apology.

The tables themselves don't cost much to make, but marketing is expensive.

Reciprocal pronouns: each other / one another

These are useful for making economical descriptions of reciprocal actions or situations. Instead of saying that A does something to B and B does the same thing to A, we can put it all into one clause with each other / one another.

My sister and I help each other / one another a lot.

There is a possessive form:

They're getting in each other's / one another's hair.

Relative pronouns: who, whom, which, that, whose

A relative pronoun generally has a double function: it connects a relative clause to a noun phrase, and at the same time it stands in for the noun phrase as subject or object in the relative clause.

I know the woman who runs that shop. (The relative clause is who runs that shop. The relative pronoun who connects this to the woman, and stands in for the woman as subject of runs.)

Whales, which are mammals, not fish, are the largest creatures in the animal kingdom. (Which stands in for whales as the subject of the first are.)

You remember those shoes that I bought yesterday? (Here, the relative pronoun that stands in for those shoes as object of I bought.)

Object relative pronouns are often left out.

You remember those shoes I bought yesterday?

The object-form whom is unusual in modern informal English; if it is not left out, it is sometimes replaced by who.

The people who we invited never replied.

Whose stands in for a possessive noun phrase; it is the relative equivalent of a possessive pronoun.

You remember the people whose car we bought?

Interrogative pronouns: who, whom, what, which, whose

These are used in questions to stand in for unknown noun phrases.

Who said that?

What do you want?

Which is your coat?

Whose is this?

Interrogative whom is unusual in modern informal English, and tends to be replaced by who.

Who did she write to? (More formal: To whom did she write?)

Indefinite pronouns: somebody/someone, something, anybody/anyone, anything, everybody/everyone, everything, nobody/no one, nothing

These have indefinite reference.

Somebody/someone and something refer to people or things whose identity is not known or is not being revealed.

Somebody broke in last night.

I've got something in mind, but I can't tell you yet.

Anybody/anyone and anything are used in similar ways in questions and negative clauses.

Do you know anybody who speaks Greek?

I can't tell you anything about it.

They can also be used (in any kind of clause) in the sense of 'it doesn't matter who/what'.

It's true. Ask anybody.

That dog will eat anything.

Everybody/everyone and everything refer to the whole of a group without specifing who or what it is made up of.

Everybody's gone home.

They lost everything in the flood.

Nobody/no one and nothing mean the same as not anybody/anyone and not anything.

I can tell you nothing about it.

Possessive pronouns (1): my, your, his, her, its, our, their

These stand in for possessive forms of noun phrases, and - being possessives - are also used before other noun phrases. So they are simultaneously pronouns and determiners.

my favourite aunt ( = the speaker's favourite aunt)

The boss has lost his keys again. ( = the boss's keys )

Not everybody calls these words 'pronouns'. Traditionally, they were called 'possessive adjectives', but this is not correct - as determiners, they behave quite differently from adjectives.

Possessive pronouns (2): mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs

These are in a way double pronouns: they stand in for two noun phrases, referring both to the possessor and the thing possessed.

Use your own car - you're not taking mine. ( = the speaker's car)

I have my life and my parents have theirs. ( = my parents' life)

Determiners used like pronouns

Many determiners can be used without following nouns. In this case they behave rather like pronouns, and some of them may be classified as pronouns in grammars.

Listen to this.

I've had enough.

Would you like some more?