Pronouns have traditionally been regarded as one of the parts of speech, but some modern theorists would not consider them to form a single class, in view of the variety of functions they perform. Subtypes include personal pronouns, reflexive and reciprocal pronouns, possessive pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, relative pronouns, interrogative pronouns, and indefinite pronouns.:1–34
The use of pronouns often involves anaphora, where the meaning of the pronoun is dependent on an antecedent. This applies especially to third-person personal pronouns, and to relative pronouns. For example, in the sentence That poor man looks as if he needs a new coat, the antecedent of the pronoun he is the noun phrase that poor man.
The adjective associated with pronoun is pronominal. A pronominal is also a word or phrase that acts as a pronoun. For example, in That's not the one I wanted, the phrase the one (containing the prop-word one) is a pronominal.
Personal pronouns may be classified by person, number, gender and case. English has three persons (first, second and third) and two numbers (singular and plural); in the third person singular there are also distinct pronoun forms for male, female and neuter gender.:52–53 Principal forms are shown in the table to the right (see also English personal pronouns).
English personal pronouns have two cases, subject and object. Subject pronouns are used in subject position (I like to eat chips, but she does not). Object pronouns are used for the object of a verb or preposition (John likes me but not her).:52–53
Other distinct forms found in some languages include:
- Second person informal and formal pronouns (the T-V distinction), like tu and vous in French. There is no such distinction in standard modern English, though Elizabethan English marked the distinction with thou (singular informal) and you (plural or singular formal), and this is preserved in some dialects.
- Inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, which indicate whether or not the audience is included, that is, whether "we" means "you and I" or "they and I". There is no such distinction in English.
- Intensive (emphatic) pronouns, which re-emphasize a noun or pronoun that has already been mentioned. English uses the same forms as the reflexive pronouns; for example: I did it myself (contrast reflexive use, I did it to myself).
- Direct and indirect object pronouns, such as le and lui in French. English uses the same form for both; for example: Mary loves him (direct object); Mary sent him a letter (indirect object).
- Prepositional pronouns, used after a preposition. English uses ordinary object pronouns here: Mary looked at him.
- Disjunctive pronouns, used in isolation or in certain other special grammatical contexts, like moi in French. No distinct forms exist in English; for example: Who does this belong to? Me.
- Strong and weak forms of certain pronouns, found in some languages such as Polish.
Some special uses of personal pronouns include:
- Generic you, where second person pronouns are used in an indefinite sense: You can't buy good old-fashioned bulbs these days.
- Generic they: In China they drive on the right.
- Gender non-specific uses, where a pronoun needs to be found to refer to a person whose sex is not specified. Solutions sometimes used in English include generic he and singular they.
- Dummy pronouns (expletive pronouns), used to satisfy a grammatical requirement for a noun or pronoun, but contributing nothing to meaning: It is raining..
- Resumptive pronouns, "intrusive" personal pronouns found (for example) in some relative clauses where a gap (trace) might be expected: This is the girl that I don’t know what she said.
Reflexive and reciprocal
Reflexive pronouns are used when a person or thing acts on itself, for example, John cut himself. In English they all end in -self or -selves and must refer to a noun phrase elsewhere in the same clause.:55
Reciprocal pronouns refer to a reciprocal relationship (each other, one another). They must refer to a noun phrase in the same clause.:55 An example in English is: They do not like each other. In some languages, the same forms can be used as both reflexive and reciprocal pronouns.
Possessive pronouns are used to indicate possession (in a broad sense). Some occur as independent noun phrases: mine, yours, hers, ours, yours, theirs. An example is: Those clothes are mine. Others must accompany a noun: my, your, her, our, your, their, as in: I lost my wallet. (His and its can fall into either category, although its is nearly always found in the second.) Those of the second type have traditionally been described as possessive adjectives, and in more modern terminology as possessive determiners. The term "possessive pronoun" is sometimes restricted to the first type. Both types replace possessive noun phrases. As an example, Their crusade to capture our attention could replace The advertisers' crusade to capture our attention.:55–56
Demonstrative pronouns (in English, this, that and their plurals these, those) often distinguish their targets by pointing or some other indication of position; for example, I'll take these. They may also be anaphoric, depending on an earlier expression for context, for example, A kid actor would try to be all sweet, and who needs that?:56
Indefinite pronouns, the largest group of pronouns, refer to one or more unspecified persons or things. One group in English includes compounds of some-, any-, every- and no- with -thing, -one and -body, for example: Anyone can do that. Another group, including many, more, both, and most, can appear alone or followed by of.:54–55 In addition,
- Distributive pronouns are used to refer to members of a group separately rather than collectively. (To each his own.)
- Negative pronouns indicate the non-existence of people or things. (Nobody thinks that.)
- Impersonal pronouns normally refer to a person, but are not specific as to first, second or third person in the way that the personal pronouns are. (One does not clean one's own windows.)
Interrogative pronouns ask which person or thing is meant. In reference to a person, one may use who (subject), whom (object) or whose (possessive); for example, Who did that? In colloquial speech, whom is generally replaced by who. English non-personal interrogative pronouns (which and what) have only one form.:56–57
In English and many other languages (e.g. French, Russian and Czech), the sets of relative and interrogative pronouns are nearly identical. Compare English: Who is that? (interrogative) and I know the woman who came (relative). In some other languages, interrogative pronouns and indefinite pronouns are frequently identical; for example, Standard Chinese 什么 shénme means "what?" as well as "something" or "anything".
The use of pronouns often involves anaphora, where the meaning of the pronoun is dependent on another referential element. The referent of the pronoun is often the same as that of a preceding (or sometimes following) noun phrase, called the antecedent of the pronoun. The following sentences give examples of particular types of pronouns used with antecedents:
- Third-person personal pronouns:
- That poor man looks as if he needs a new coat. (the noun phrase that poor man is the antecedent of he)
- Julia arrived yesterday. I met her at the station. (Julia is the antecedent of her)
- When they saw us, the lions began roaring (the lions is the antecedent of they; as it comes after the pronoun it may be called a postcedent)
- Other personal pronouns in some circumstances:
- Terry and I were hoping no-one would find us. (Terry and I is the antecedent of us)
- You and Alice can come if you like. (you and Alice is the antecedent of the second – plural – you)
- Reflexive and reciprocal pronouns:
- Jack hurt himself. (Jack is the antecedent of himself)
- We were teasing each other. (we is the antecedent of each other)
- Relative pronouns:
- The woman who looked at you is my sister. (the woman is the antecedent of who)
Some other types, such as indefinite pronouns, are usually used without antecedents. Relative pronouns are used without antecedents in free relative clauses. Even third-person personal pronouns are sometimes used without antecedents ("unprecursed") – this applies to special uses such as dummy pronouns and generic they, as well as cases where the referent is implied by the context.
Pronouns (antōnymía) are listed as one of eight parts of speech in The Art of Grammar, a treatise on Greek grammar attributed to Dionysius Thrax and dating from the 2nd century BC. The pronoun is described there as "a part of speech substitutable for a noun and marked for a person." Pronouns continued to be regarded as a part of speech in Latin grammar (the Latin term being pronomen, from which the English name – through Middle French – ultimately derives), and thus in the European tradition generally.
In more modern approaches, pronouns are less likely to be considered to be a single word class, because of the many different syntactic roles that they play, as represented by the various different types of pronouns listed in the previous sections.
Certain types of pronouns are often identical or similar in form to determiners with related meaning; some English examples are given in the table on the right. This observation has led some linguists, such as Paul Postal, to regard pronouns as determiners that have had their following noun or noun phrase deleted. (Such patterning can even be claimed for certain personal pronouns; for example, we and you might be analyzed as determiners in phrases like we Brits and you tennis players.) Other linguists have taken a similar view, uniting pronouns and determiners into a single class, sometimes called "determiner-pronoun", or regarding determiners as a subclass of pronouns or vice versa. The distinction may be considered to be one of subcategorization or valency, rather like the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs – determiners take a noun phrase complement like transitive verbs do, while pronouns do not. This is consistent with the determiner phrase viewpoint, whereby a determiner, rather than the noun that follows it, is taken to be the head of the phrase.
The grammatical behavior of certain types of pronouns, and in particular their possible relationship with their antecedents, has been the focus of studies in binding, originating in the Chomskyan government and binding theory. In this context, reflexive and reciprocal pronouns (such as himself and each other) are referred to as anaphors (in a specialized restricted sense) rather than as pronominal elements.
In other languages
- Bulgarian pronouns
- Cantonese pronouns
- Chinese pronouns
- Dutch grammar: Pronouns and determiners
- Esperanto grammar: Pronouns
- French pronouns
- German pronouns
- Ido pronouns
- Interlingua pronouns
- Irish morphology: Pronouns
- Italian grammar: Pronouns
- Japanese pronouns
- Korean pronouns
- Macedonian pronouns
- Novial: Pronouns
- Portuguese personal pronouns
- Proto-Indo-European pronouns
- Slovene pronouns
- Spanish grammar: Pronouns
- Vietnamese pronouns
- Bhat, Darbhe Narayana Shankara (2007). Pronouns (Paperback ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199230242.
- Börjars, Kersti; Burridge, Kate (2010). Introducing English grammar (2nd ed.). London: Hodder Education. pp. 50–57. ISBN 978-1444109870.
- Loos, Eugene E.; Susan Anderson; Dwight H. Day, Jr.; Paul C. Jordan; J. Douglas Wingate. "What is a pronominal?". Glossary of linguistic terms. SIL International.
- For example, Vulf Plotkin (The Language System of English, Universal Publishers, 2006, pp. 82–83) writes: "[...] Pronouns exemplify such a word class, or rather several smaller classes united by an important semantic distinction between them and all the major parts of speech. The latter denote things, phenomena and their properties in the ambient world. [...] Pronouns, on the contrary, do not denote anything, but refer to things, phenomena or properties without involving their peculiar nature."
- Postal, Paul (1966). Dinneen, Francis P., ed. "On So-Called "Pronouns" in English". Report of the Seventeenth Annual Round Table Meeting on Linguistics and Language Studies (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press): 177–206.
- For detailed discussion see George D. Morley, Explorations in Functional Syntax: A New Framework for Lexicogrammatical Analysis, Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2004, pp. 68–73.
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- English pronouns exercises, by Jennifer Frost