Generally (but not always) pronouns stand for (pro + noun) or refer to a noun, an individual or individuals or thing or things (the pronoun's antecedent) whose identity is made clear earlier in the text. For instance, we are bewildered by writers who claim something like
They is a pronoun referring to someone, but who are they? Cows? whom do they represent? Sloppy use of pronouns is unfair.
Not all pronouns will refer to an antecedent, however.
The word "everyone" has no antecedent.
The problem of agreement between a pronoun and its antecedent and between a pronoun and its verb is treated in another section on Pronoun-Antecedent Consistency. The quizzes on pronoun usage are also listed at the end of that section.
This section will list and briefly describe the several kinds of pronouns.
Unlike English nouns, which usually do not change form except for the addition of an -s ending to create the plural or the apostrophe + s to create the possessive, personal pronouns (which stand for persons or things) change form according to their various uses within a sentence. Thus I is used as the subject of a sentence (I am happy.), me is used as an object in various ways (He hit me. He gave me a book. Do this for me.), and my is used as the possessive form (That's my car.) The same is true of the other personal pronouns: the singular you and he/she/it and the plural we, you, and they. These forms are called cases. An easily printable chart is available that shows the various Cases of the Personal Pronouns.
Personal pronouns can also be characterized or distinguished by person. First person refers to the speaker(s) or writer(s) ("I" for singular, "we" for plural). Second person refers to the person or people being spoken or written to ("you" for both singular and plural). Third person refers to the person or people being spoken or written about ("he," "she," and "it" for singular, "they" for plural). The person of a pronoun is also demonstrated in the chart Cases of the Personal Pronouns. As you will see there, each person can change form, reflecting its use within a sentence. Thus, "I" becomes "me" when used as an object ("She left me") and "my" when used in its possessive role (That's my car"); "they" becomes "them" in object form ("I like them") and "their" in possessive ("That's just their way").
When a personal pronoun is connected by a conjunction to another noun or pronoun, its case does not change. We would write "I am taking a course in Asian history"; if Talitha is also taking that course, we would write "Talitha and I are taking a course in Asian history." (Notice that Talitha gets listed before "I" does. This is one of the few ways in which English is a "polite" language.) The same is true when the object form is called for: "Professor Vendetti gave all her books to me"; if Talitha also received some books, we'd write "Professor Vendetti gave all her books to Talitha and me." For more on this, see cases of pronouns.
If one is interested in the uses of one as a numerical and impersonal pronoun, one should click the enter button.
When a pronoun and a noun are combined (which will happen with the plural first- and second-person pronouns), choose the case of the pronoun that would be appropriate if the noun were not there.
With the second person, we don't really have a problem because the subject form is the same as the object form, "you":
Among the possessive pronoun forms, there is also what is called the nominative possessive: mine, yours, ours, theirs.
The family of demonstratives (this/that/these/those/such) can behave either as pronouns or as determiners.
As pronouns, they identify or point to nouns.
As determiners, the demonstratives adjectivally modify a noun that follows. A sense of relative distance (in time and space) can be conveyed through the choice of these pronouns/determiners:
A sense of emotional distance or even disdain can be conveyed with the demonstrative pronouns:
When used as subjects, the demonstratives, in either singular or plural form, can be used to refer to objects as well as persons.
In other roles, however, the reference of demonstratives is non-personal. In other words, when referring to students, say, we could write "Those were loitering near the entrance during the fire drill" (as long as it is perfectly clear in context what "those" refers to). But we would not write "The principal suspended those for two days"; instead, we would have to use "those" as a determiner and write "The principal suspended those students for two days."
The relative pronouns (who/whoever/which/that) relate groups of words to nouns or other pronouns (The student who studies hardest usually does the best.). The word who connects or relates the subject, student, to the verb within the dependent clause (studies). Choosing correctly between which and that and between who and whom leads to what are probably the most Frequently Asked Questions about English grammar. For help with which/that, refer to the Notorious Confusables article on those words (including the hyperlink to Michael Quinion's article on this usage and the links to relevant quizzes). Generally, we use "which" to introduce clauses that are parenthetical in nature (i.e., that can be removed from the sentence without changing the essential meaning of the sentence). For that reason, a "which clause" is often set off with a comma or a pair of commas. "That clauses," on the other hand, are usually deemed indispensable for the meaning of a sentence and are not set off with commas. The pronoun which refers to things; who (and its forms) refers to people; that usually refers to things, but it can also refer to people in a general kind of way. For help with who/whom refer to the section on Consistency. We also recommend that you take the quizzes on the use of who and whom at the end of that section.
The expanded form of the relative pronouns whoever, whomever, whatever are known as indefinite relative pronouns. A couple of sample sentences should suffice to demonstrate why they are called "indefinite":
What is often an indefinite relative pronoun:
The indefinite pronouns (everybody/anybody/somebody/all/each/every/some/none/one) do not substitute for specific nouns but function themselves as nouns (Everyone is wondering if any is left.)
One of the chief difficulties we have with the indefinite pronouns lies in the fact that "everybody" feels as though it refers to more than one person, but it takes a singular verb. (Everybody is accounted for.) If you think of this word as meaning "every single body," the confusion usually disappears. The indefinite pronoun none can be either singular or plural, depending on its context. None is nearly always plural (meaning "not any") except when something else in the sentence makes us regard it as a singular (meaning "not one"), as in "None of the food is fresh." Some can be singular or plural depending on whether it refers to something countable or noncountable. Refer to the section on Pronoun Consistency for help on determining the number of the indefinite pronouns (and the number [singular/plural] of the verbs that accompany them). There is a separate section on the uses of the pronoun one.
There are other indefinite pronouns, words that double as Determiners:
enough, few, fewer, less, little, many, much, several, more, most, all, both, every, each, any, either, neither, none, some
See the section on Pronoun Consistency for help in determining the number (singular/plural) characteristics of these pronouns.
The intensive pronouns (such as myself, yourself, herself, ourselves, themselves) consist of a personal pronoun plus self or selves and emphasize a noun. (I myself don't know the answer.) It is possible (but rather unusual) for an intensive pronoun to precede the noun it refers to. (Myself, I don't believe a word he says.)
The reflexive pronouns (which have the same forms as the intensive pronouns) indicate that the sentence subject also receives the action of the verb. (Students who cheat on this quiz are only hurting themselves. You paid yourself a million dollars? She encouraged herself to do well.) What this means is that whenever there is a reflexive pronoun in a sentence there must be a person to whom that pronoun can "reflect." In other words, the sentence "Please hand that book to myself" would be incorrect because there is no "I" in that sentence for the "myself" to reflect to (and we would use "me" instead of "myself"). A sentence such as "I gave that book to myself for Christmas" might be silly, but it would be correct.
Be alert to a tendency to use reflexive pronoun forms (ending in -self) where they are neither appropriate nor necessary. The inappropriate reflexive form has a wonderful name: the untriggered reflexive. "Myself" tends to sound weightier, more formal, than little ol' me or I, so it has a way of sneaking into sentences where it doesn't belong.
When pronouns are combined, the reflexive will take either the first person
or, when there is no first person, the second person:
The indefinite pronoun (see above) one has its own reflexive form ("One must have faith in oneself."), but the other indefinite pronouns use either himself or themselves as reflexives. (There is an entire page on the pronoun one.) It is probably better to pluralize and avoid the clumsy himself or herself construction.
The interrogative pronouns (who/which/what) introduce questions. (What is that? Who will help me? Which do you prefer?) Which is generally used with more specific reference than what. If we're taking a quiz and I ask "Which questions give you the most trouble?", I am referring to specific questions on that quiz. If I ask "What questions give you most trouble"? I could be asking what kind of questions on that quiz (or what kind of question, generically, in general) gives you trouble. The interrogative pronouns also act as Determiners: It doesn't matter which beer you buy. He doesn't know whose car he hit. In this determiner role, they are sometimes called interrogative adjectives.
Like the relative pronouns, the interrogative pronouns introduce noun clauses, and like the relative pronouns, the interrogative pronouns play a subject role in the clauses they introduce:
The reciprocal pronouns are each other and one another. They are convenient forms for combining ideas. If Bob gave Alicia a book for Christmas and Alicia gave Bob a book for Christmas, we can say that they gave each other books (or that they gave books to each other).
If more than two people are involved (let's say a whole book club), we would say that they gave one another books. This rule (if it is one) should be applied circumspectly. It's quite possible for the exchange of books within this book club, for example, to be between individuals, making "each other" just as appropriate as "one another."
Reciprocal pronouns can also take possessive forms:
Two authorities used for this section on pronouns are: The Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsay Fowler and Jane E. Aaron, & Kay Limburg. 6th ed. HarperCollins: New York. 1995. By permission of Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc. and A University Grammar of English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum. Longman Group: Essex, England. 1993. Used with permission.