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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Word Class: Pronouns

This is a closed word class.

A pronoun is a kind of noun.

Traditionally, a pronoun was said to be a word that stood for a noun, from the Latin pro, meaning "for" or "in place of". (Strictly speaking, a pronoun stands for a noun phrase - more about them later.)

 Peter thought about Peter's mother a great deal. Peter remembered the first time Peter's mother took Peter to town, how Peter's mother took Peter's hand and helped Peter across the road. Whenever Peter and Peter's mother went to town, Peter's mother always bought Peter a Boston bun because Peter's mother knew how much Peter liked Boston buns.

Peter thought about his mother a great deal. He remembered the first time she took him to town, how she took his hand and helped him across the road. Whenever they went to town, she always bought him a Boston bun because she knew how much he liked them.

The examples in the second passage above are called personal pronouns.

The term first person refers to the speaker (or speakers).

The term second person is the person (or persons) being addressed.

The term third person is what is being spoken about (whether singular or plural, person or thing).

Personal Pronouns

      Subject Object
First person        
  singular   I me
  plural   we us
Second person        
  singluar & plural   you you
Third person        
  singular masculine he him
    feminine she her
    non-personal it it
  plural   they them

Some Differences between Nouns and Pronouns

Pronouns belong to a closed word class.

There are very few of them (about sixty) compared with thousands of nouns.

Nouns are in the same form whether they are the subject or the object of a sentence.

  •  The hunter killed the tiger.
  •  The tiger killed the hunter.

Personal pronouns have different forms for subject and object.

  •  I (subject) saw him. (object)
  •  We (subject) saw them. (object)

When children are learning to talk, pronouns can be quite troublesome because they cannot simply be imitated like other nouns.

 I am going to brush your hair.

If a child wants to repeat the identical information, she cannot merely imitate the sentence but must say:

 You are going to brush my hair.

It seems that adults instinctively avoid this difficulty by using proper nouns instead of pronouns when they talk to little children:

 Mummy is going to brush Michelle's hair.

In the third person singular, the personal pronoun must indicate gender.

In English, if you use nouns, you do not need to specify the gender of the person being spoken about. Once you use a pronoun, you must specify the gender of the person referred to.

  • I visited my friend. I visited him.
  • The teacher slipped on the ice. He slipped on the ice.
  • You should see the doctor. You should see her.

She or he, his or her?

In the past, the masculine pronoun was considered adequate for all situations where the gender of the person was not specified:

Every time a New Zealander pays his taxes, he helps his country.

Today, this usage is considered to be "sexist language". It can be avoided by using both pronouns:

Every time a New Zealander pays his or her taxes, he or she helps his or her country.

This construction can sound rather cumbersome. The problem can be avoided altogether by using the plural because this does not require any indication of gender:

Every time New Zealanders pay their taxes, they help their country.

Another option, used for centuries and now becoming acceptable again, is to use the plural they, their as the standard gender-neutral pronoun.

Someone has left his or her car lights on.

Someone has left their car lights on.

If any student wants to go to the football match, they should leave their name at the office.

This use of the plural pronoun has a very long history.

Every person [...] now recovered their liberty.

Goldsmith: History of England, 1771

"If everybody minded their own business," the Duchess said, "the world would go round a good deal faster than it does."

Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

Another suggested solution has been the creation of a new gender-neutral pronoun, such as tey, co, E, ne, thon, mon, heesh, ho, hesh, et, hir, na, per, po, or hann.

None of these has ever had widespread support. Because the pronoun is a member of a closed word class, it will not admit newcomers easily.

Pronoun gender is not an issue in Mâori, where there is only one word, ia, for "he" or "she".

Many other languages, including Chinese, are like Mâori in having a gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun. In Chinese, the pronoun for both "he" and "she" is ta. This can present problems for Chinese students speaking English.

 He has just given birth to a daughter.

In English, we have the single word "you" for both singular and plural.

However, many languages have different words. In French, for example:

Singular: tu Plural: vous

Tu is familiar and used to address close friends and family, whereas vous is used not only as the plural but also as the singular in the more formal and polite usage.

At the time of Shakespeare, English also had two different second-person pronouns.

Singular: thou Plural: ye or you

As with French vous, "you" was also the formal and more distant form for the singular. "Thou" was more intimate or was used by superior people when addressing those they considered inferior, such as servants. Understanding this distinction helps us to interpret the social relations and dimensions of power expressed in older texts that are otherwise obscure to us today.


 Thou dost belie him, Percy, thou dost belie him;

 He never did encounter with Glendower:

 I tell thee,

 He durst as well have met the devil alone

 As Owen Glendower for an enemy.

 Art thou not asham'd? But sirrah, henceforth

 Let me not hear you speak of Mortimer:

 Send me your prisoners with the speediest means [...]

(William Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, scene iii)

The King here is addressing Percy (also known as Hotspur) at first as an equal and friend by using the pronoun "thou". He then changes his tone, addresses him as "sirrah", which is more contemptuous than "Sir", and changes the pronoun to the "you" form when ordering him to send his prisoners; he is now speaking as a superior addressing a subordinate.

Pronouns in other varieties of English

In Ireland and in parts of England, it is common to hear "you" as the singular and "yous" as the plural. The plural "yous" is also commonly heard in New Zealand in vernacular English. It is used in the everyday speech of many New Zealand speakers. Some New Zealand speakers use "you" for the singular and "you guys" or something similar for the plural. It has been suggested that the plural "yous" will eventually become part of standard English, though no doubt this will be resisted.

The uncertainty about how to spell "yous" (or "you's" or "youse") comes from the fact that this is primarily a spoken form, not a written form, so has not developed a conventional spelling.

Six-year-old Conor was listening intently to an explanation of a song in te reo Mâori that differentiated between one, two, three, or more persons - tênâ koe, tênâ korua, tênâ koutou. When he was singing, he said "yous" for the translation of "tênâ korua" and "tênâ koutou" - "greetings to yous", eyeballing the teacher to make sure she understood. At the conclusion he said, "You'll have to fix your chart 'cause in English one person is 'you', but two or more has an 's' and you say 'yous'".

Teacher in Mangere, Auckland

Other Categories of Pronoun

We have concentrated on the personal pronoun here. There are other categories of pronoun, which we give here for the sake of completeness.

  • Possessive pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, their.
    Although yours is more modern, I still like mine best.
  • Relative pronouns: who, whom, which, whose, that.
    The man who came to fix the washing machine ...
  • Demonstrative pronouns: this, that, these, those.
    This is for you.
    Leave those on the table.
  • Interrogative pronouns: who, whom, whose.
    Who is coming to dinner? Whose is the car outside?
  • Reflexive pronouns: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves.
    I myself thought he was a fraud.
    She bought herself some dark glasses.
  • Indefinite pronouns: anybody, anyone, anything, everything, everybody, nobody, no-one, nothing, somebody, someone, something.
    I want to eat something.
    Someone pinched my lunch.

Notice that there is some overlap between pronouns and determiners.

Pronouns This is for you.
  Which is yours?
Determiners This car is for you.
  Which book is yours?

The reason is that some closed-class words can occur either before nouns (as determiners) or on their own (as pronouns).

Summary of Terms

pronoun personal pronoun first person second person
third person gender categories of pronoun: personal pronoun possessive pronoun
relative pronoun demonstrative pronoun interrogative pronoun reflexive pronoun
indefinite pronoun      

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009


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