Pronoun Definition and Examples

These words replace nouns and noun phrases or clauses

pronouns
A page from First Grammar Book for Children (W. Walker & Sons, 1900). Culture Club/Getty Images

In English grammar, a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun, noun phrase, or noun clause. The pronoun is one of the traditional parts of speech. A pronoun can function as a subject, object, or complement in a sentence.

Unlike nouns, pronouns rarely allow modification. Pronouns are a closed word class in English: new members rarely enter the language. To understand how to recognize and correctly use pronouns, it can be helpful to review the types of pronouns that exist in English.

Demonstrative Pronouns

demonstrative pronoun points to a particular noun or to the noun it replaces. "These pronouns can indicate items in space or time, and they can be either singular or plural," says Ginger Software. When used to represent a thing or things, demonstrative pronouns can be either near or far in distance or time, says the online grammar, punctuation, and spelling checker, offering these examples:

  • Near in time or distance: this, these
  • Far in time or distance: that, those

There are three basic rules for using demonstrative pronouns:

  1. They always identify nouns, such as: I can’t believe this. The writer does not know what this is, but it exists.
  2. They often describe animals, places, or things but they can also describe people, such as: This sounds like Mary singing.
  3. They stand alone, distinguishing them from demonstrative adjectives, which qualify (or modify) nouns.

Demonstrative pronouns can be used in place of a noun, so long as the noun being replaced can be understood from the pronoun’s context:

  • This was my mother’s ring.
  • These are nice shoes, but they look uncomfortable.
  • None of these answers is correct.

Indefinite Pronouns

An indefinite pronoun refers to an unspecified or unidentified person or thing. Put another way, an indefinite pronoun doesn't have an antecedent. Indefinite pronouns include quantifiers (some, any, enough, several, many, or much); universals (all, both, every, or each); and partitives (any, anyone, anybody, either, neither, no, nobody, some, or someone). For example:

  • Everyone did as he pleased.
  • Both of us match the donation.
  • Some coffee is left.

Many of the indefinite pronouns can function as determiners.

Interrogative Pronouns

The term interrogative pronoun refers to a pronoun that introduces a question. These words are also called a pronominal interrogative. Related terms include interrogative"wh"-word, and question word, although these terms are usually not defined in precisely the same way. In English, who, whom, whose, which, and what commonly function as interrogative pronouns, for example:

"Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?"
- Clarence Darrow

When immediately followed by a noun, whose, which, and what function as determiners or interrogative adjectives. When they start a question, interrogative pronouns have no antecedent, because what they refer to is precisely what the question is trying to find out.

Reflexive Pronouns

reflexive pronoun ends in -self or -selves and is used as an object to refer to a previously named noun or pronoun in a sentence. It can also simply be called a reflexive. Reflexive pronouns usually follow verbs or prepositions. For example:

"Good breeding consists of concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person."
- ​Mark Twain

Reflexive pronouns, which have the forms myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, oneself, and themselves, are essential to the meaning of a sentence.

Intensive Pronouns

An intensive pronoun ends in -self or -selves and emphasizes its antecedent. It is also known as an intensive reflexive pronoun. Intensive pronouns often appear as appositives after nouns or other pronouns, for example:

"He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic."
- George Orwell, "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

Intensive pronouns have the same forms as reflexive pronouns: myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, oneself, and themselves. Unlike reflexive pronouns, intensive pronouns are not essential to the basic meaning of a sentence.

Personal Pronouns

personal pronoun refers to a particular person, group, or thing. Like all pronouns, personal pronouns can take the place of nouns and noun phrases. These are the personal pronouns in English:

  • First-person singular: I ( subject), me (object)
  • First-person plural: we (subject), us (object)
  • Second-person singular and plural: you (subject and object)
  • Third-person singular: he, she, it (subject), him, her, it (object)
  • Third-person plural: they (subject), them (object)

Note that personal pronouns inflect for case to show whether they are serving as subjects of clauses or as objects of verbs or prepositions. All the personal pronouns except you have distinct forms indicating number, either singular or plural. Only the third-person singular pronouns have distinct forms indicating gender: masculine (he, him), feminine (she, her), and neuter (it). A personal pronoun (such as they) that can refer to both masculine and feminine entities is called a generic pronoun.

Possessive Pronouns

A possessive pronoun can take the place of a noun phrase to show ownership, as in, "This phone is mine." The weak possessives (also called possessive determiners) function as determiners in front of nouns, as in, "My phone is broken." The weak possessives are my, your, his, her, its, our, and their.

In contrast, the strong (or absolute) possessive pronouns stand on their own: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, and theirs. The strong possessive is a type of independent genitive. A possessive pronoun never takes an apostrophe.

Reciprocal Pronouns

A reciprocal pronoun expresses a mutual action or relationship. In English, the reciprocal pronouns are each other and one another, as in this example:

"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."
- John F. Kennedy, in a speech prepared for delivery on the day of his assassination, Nov. 22, 1963

Some usage guides insist that each other should be used to refer to two people or things, and one another to more than two.

Relative Pronouns

relative pronoun introduces an adjective clause (also called a relative clause), as in:

"Spaghetti at her table, which was offered at least three times a week, was a mysterious red, white, and brown concoction."
- Maya Angelou, "Mom & Me & Mom"

The standard relative pronouns in English are which, that, who, whom, and whoseWho and whom refer only to people. Which refers to things, qualities, and ideas—never to people. That and whose refer to people, things, qualities, and ideas.