Pronoun of laziness (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Cat embodying the pronoun of laziness
Tamara Uribe Photography/Getty Images


In English grammar, a pronoun of laziness is a pronoun that does not refer explicitly or precisely to an antecedent. It is also known as a lazy pronoun, an anaphoric substitute, and a paycheck pronoun.

In P.T. Geach's original conception of the term, a pronoun of laziness is "any pronoun used in lieu of a repetitious expression" (Reference and Generality, 1962). The phenomenon of the lazy pronoun as it's presently understood was identified by Lauri Karttunen in 1969.

Lazy pronouns can be observed in the following:

Examples and Observations

  • "An example of a pure pronoun of laziness is in the sentence 'Max, who sometimes ignores his boss, has more sense than Oscar, who always gives in to him,' where the pronoun 'him' serves as a proxy for 'his boss'—that is, Oscar's boss."
    (Robert Fiengo and Robert May, De Lingua Belief. The MIT Press, 2006)
  • "The fountain of youth does not exist, but it nevertheless was sought by Ponce de Leon."
    (Jason Stanley's example of a lazy pronoun in "Hermeneutic Fictionalism," 2001)
  • Lazy Pronouns
    "In grammar and semantics, [lazy pronoun is] a term sometimes used for a usage (quite common in informal speech) where there is an imprecise match between a pronoun and its antecedent; also called pronoun of laziness. For example, in X wears her hat every day of the week. Y wears it only on Sundays, the it in the second sentence should more precisely be hers. In such cases, the pronoun is being interpreted as equivalent to a repetition of the antecedent, even though it is not co-referential with it."
    (David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 5th ed. Blackwell, 2003)
  • I glanced into the kitchen and saw that the windows were filthy; in the bathroom, on the other hand, they were quite clean. "The pronoun is interpreted, in terms of description, on the basis of the preceding noun phrase the windows. But while they refers to windows, it does not refer to the same windows; this is what makes it a lazy pronoun. It gets its reference from association with the bathroom, just as the windows gets its reference from association with the kitchen."
    (Christopher Lyons, Definiteness. Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Lazy Pronoun in a Paycheck Sentence
    "Consider the following example of a 'paycheck sentence':
    (30) John gave his paycheck1 to his mistress. Everybody else put it1 in the bank. The pronoun it in (30) can have an e-type interpretation (i.e., a 'covariant' reading in the sense that it can refer to a different paycheck for every person). That kind of example raises the problem of how to treat the relation between the pronoun and its antecedent: it can neither be defined in terms of co-reference (as the pronoun does not refer to a unique and specific individual), nor be considered as a case of bound variable."
    (Nicholas Guilliot and Nouman Malkawi, "When Movement Fails to Reconstruct." Merging Features: Computation, Interpretation, and Acquisition, ed. by José M. Brucart, Anna Gavarró, and Jaume Solà. Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • "You Believe It, but It's Not True"
    "There are sentences such as 'That is not very interesting, even if it's true,' where it appears that 'that' and 'it' seem to function as pronouns that have the same antecedent. An interesting example the authors consider is (GCB, 105):
    John: Some dogs eat glass.
    Bill: I believe it.
    Mary: You believe it, but it's not true. . . . The three occurrences of 'it' in (7) have John's utterance as their antecedent. On my view, then, they do not have independent reference. . . . Each 'it' functions as a pronoun of laziness; what can replace each of them is the complement 'that some dogs eat glass.'"
    (W. Kent Wilson, "Some Reflections on the Prosentential Theory of Truth." Truth or Consequences: Essays in Honor of Nuel Belnap, eds. J. Michael Dunn and Anil Gupta. Kluwer, 1990)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Pronoun of laziness (grammar)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Pronoun of laziness (grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Pronoun of laziness (grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).