third-person pronouns

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

third-person singular
Mickey Spillane, The Long Wait (1951). (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Definition

In English grammar, third-person pronouns refer to people or things other than the speaker (or writer) and the person(s) addressed.

In contemporary standard English, these are the third-person pronouns:

  • them (plural personal pronoun in the objective case)
  • his, hers (singular possessive pronouns)
  • theirs (plural possessive pronoun)
  • himself, herself, itself, oneself (singular reflexive/intensive pronouns)
  • themselves (plural reflexive/intensive pronoun)

In addition, his, her, its, one's, and their are the singular and plural third-person possessive determiners.

Unlike first-person and second-person pronouns, third-person pronouns in the singular are marked for gender: he and she, him and her, his and hers, himself and herself. For a discussion of issues related to this gender distinction, see generic pronoun.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "On Sunday mornings Momma served a breakfast that was geared to hold us quiet from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. She fried thick pink slabs of home-cured ham and poured the grease over sliced red tomatoes."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)   

     
  • "Someone in this room knows a lot more than he or she is admitting, and I intend to find out who it is."
    (James Flavin as Inspector Wellman in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, 1949)

     
  • "Maybe it's the ghost, he thought, giving himself a pleasant shudder that had nothing to do with the cold. Maybe he, she, or it is protective of the books up here."
    (James Hynes, The Lecturer's Tale. Picador, 2001)
     
  • "It's really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs."
    (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

     
  • "Passing along Crest Avenue, he paused speculatively to vault the high hydrant in front of the Van Schellinger house, wondering if one did such things in long trousers and if he would ever do it again."
    (F. Scott Fitzgerald, "A Night at the Fair," 1928)

     
  • "Children who feel good about themselves and believe they can do things well have a good sense of self-acceptance."
    (Mary Mayesky, Creative Activities for Young Children. Delmar, Cengage, 2009)

     
  • "Only she herself knew that at the center of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: 'She is such a good mother. She adores her children.' Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so."
    (D.H. Lawrence, "The Rocking-Horse Winner," 1926)
     
  • "The same things are done by us, over and over, with terrible predictability. One may be forgiven, in view of this, for wishing at least to associate with beauty."
    (Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift. Viking, 1975)
     
  • "I should fancy . . . that murder is always a mistake. One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner."
    (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)
     
  • "It's horribly hampering to one's detective work when one isn't supposed to be detecting, because one daren't ask any questions, much."
    (Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise, 1933)
     
  • Untypical Uses of Pronouns and the Singular They
    "Note that although it is true to say that first person refers to speaker/writer, second person to hearer/reader and third person to third parties, English shows some untypical uses. . . . [Y]ou can be used to refer to people in general (preferable in some varieties of English to the indefinite one), e.g. Chocolate is actually good for you; in special cases of extreme politeness third person forms can be used to refer to the hearer (a kind of distancing technique), e.g. If Madam so desires, she could have the waist taken in a little; they often appears as a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, e.g. If anyone wants it, they can have pavlova with extra whipped cream. We often hear the argument that this 'singular they' is grammatically incorrect because a plural pronoun shouldn't refer back to a singular word and that he should be used instead, but clearly this is linguistically unfounded. As we've just discussed, English has many examples where for special purposes pronouns depart from their central meaning--as so often is the case, there is no perfect match between form and meaning here."
    (Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge, Introducing English Grammar, 2nd ed. Hodder, 2010)
     
  • Grammar and Lexis
    "[T]he choice among he, she, and it referring to a sheep reflects a common fact of English usage: the pronoun for referring to an animal is the same as the pronoun for referring to a lifeless object, it, except that a pet-owner or farmer, who cares about the animal, can refer to a pet or farm animal with the same distinction as is made in referring to people (Halliday and Hasan 1976: 47). Thus the grammatical system of English makes distinctions that the lexicon often ignores."
    (Charles W. Kreidler, Introducing English Semantics. Routledge, 1998)
     
  • The Impersonal Third-Person Pronoun
    "The third-person pronoun lacks what the other two pronouns capture, namely positive participant involvement in discourse. That is why the referents of third-person pronouns may be seen as 'nonpersons,' since their position in the speech act is defined in exclusively negative terms, in contrast to the referents of 'I' and 'you' (Lyons 1977, 638). Contrary to 'I' and 'you,' the third-person pronoun referents are not defined in terms of speech roles. . . .

    "[C]onsider that although 'I' and 'you' possess the 'correlation of personality,' the third-person pronoun appears impersonal or a nonperson (Benveniste 1971, 228). It falls outside the scope of direct address and so loses the peculiar discourse-dependent meaning. It indicates neither to the one who speaks nor the one spoken to but the one spoken of; it might be an inert object or a dead body that does not reverse between I and you but freezes into an irreversible it. Static, fixed, the third-person pronoun referent is deprived of speaker/addresee involvement. Even though this pronoun is consistently ascribed to people, it designates them as a nonparticipatory third party, as passive, distant, nonpresent, even though they might be in physical proximity."
    (Beata Stawarska, Between You and I: Dialogical Phenomenology. Ohio University Press, 2009)

     
  • The Origin of Third-Person Pronouns in Old English
    "Where Latin loanwords were predominantly lexical words--nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs--Old Norse loans included grammatical items such as pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions. . . .The most striking effect of this contact is the adoption into English of the Old Norse third-person plural pronouns, they, their, and them, which replaced the Old English equivalents to enable clearer distinctions between the third person plural pronouns hie ('they'), hira ('their), him ('them'), and the pronouns he, her, and him."
    (Simon Horobin, How English Became English. Oxford University Press, 2016)

     
  • The Lighter Side of Third-Person Pronouns
    "Incidentally, one can get beaten up in school simply by referring to oneself as one."
    (Jim Parsons as Sheldon in "The Lunar Excitation." The Big Bang Theory, May 2010)