Parts of Speech: Pronouns

Pronouns take the place of one or more nouns or a group of words in a sentence. Like nouns, they can be used to refer to a person, place, or thing. Pronouns are very crucial in expressing one’s ideas, because the wrong use of pronouns may lead to confusion. Pronouns are very essential to make your sentences brief and less repetitive. Let us review the different types of pronouns together with their functions. This would help us in distinguishing and choosing the appropriate pronoun for a certain context.

The coach described several key plays. He wanted the team to memorize them. (He replaces coach; them replaces several key plays.)

My car, which is in the garage, is getting too old for these winters. I should sell it. (It replaces my car, which is in the garage.)

The word or phrase that the pronoun replaces is called the antecedent of the pronoun. In the previous sentences, coach is the antecedent of he, while my car, which is in the garage, is the antecedent of it.

Pronouns are classified as personal, intensive/reflexive, indefinite, possessive, relative, interrogative, and demonstrative.


Personal Pronouns

Personal pronouns can be used in a variety of ways. They serve as the subject of a sentence, as the object of a verb or preposition, to show possession, to provide emphasis (called intensive pronouns), or to refer action back to the subject (called reflexive pronouns).

Subject:She is simply too good to be true.
Object:Tell him the parakeet died. (object of verb)
Break the news to him gently. (object of a preposition)
Possessive:Your hands are warm. Where did my glasses go?
Intensive:The quarterback himself changed the call. (The pronoun himself emphasizes the subject quarterback.)
Reflexive:Jane taught herself to use the scanner. We made the reservations ourselves. (The pronouns herself and ourselves refer the action back to the subjects.)

Case of Personal Pronouns

Personal pronouns have three cases: nominative (subject), possessive, and objective (object of verb or preposition). The following table shows the personal pronouns in all their case forms—including the intensive/reflexive forms—for the first person (I, we), second person (you), and third person (he, she, it, they).

his/her, hers/its

Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns refer to unspecified people or things. Many indefinite pronouns express some idea of quantity: all, several, few, none. Following is a list of the most commonly used indefinite pronouns.


no one

The board of directors needed a new president for the company. They appointed someone from outside the firm. (Someone replaces new president.)

Do you have any fantasy novels in your library? Yes, we have a few. (Few replaces fantasy novels.)

Possessive Pronouns

Possessive pronouns, unlike possessive nouns, never take an apostrophe. The possessive forms are my/mine, our/ours, your/yours, his/her, hers/its, their/theirs. The pronoun who also has a possessive form, whose.

  • Whose gym shoes are on the floor?
  • I thought my wallet was lost, but the one Jameel found was mine.
  • Our vacation starts next week.
  • Those four suitcases are ours.
  • How can we get your dog to obey?
  • Is this yours?
  • Jerry Seinfeld never seems to lose his timing.
  • You have to take either her car or theirs. Hers is better.
  • The lawyers knew their client was probably guilty.

Possessive Pronouns vs. Contractions. People often confuse possessive pronouns with pronoun-verb forms that sound exactly like them (its/it’s, whose/who’s, your/you’re, their/they’re). To keep the possessive forms straight, remember this easy rule: possessive pronouns never take an apostrophe.

Pronouns that do take an apostrophe are contractions formed by the pronoun and a verb (it’s = it is; they’re = they are).

itsThe shuttle fired its engines. (possessive)
it’sIt’s (it is) an awesome sight. (contraction)
whoseWhose video game is this? (possessive)
who’sWe need to know who’s (who is) coming. (contraction)
Who’s (who has) been eating my fudge? (contraction)
yourCan I use your fax machine? (possessive)
you’reYou’re (you are) welcome to try it. (contraction)
theirThe Jaguar is their best car. (possessive)
they’reThey’re (they are) the top racing team. (contraction)

Possessive Pronouns and Gerunds. Gerunds are verb forms ending in ing that are used as nouns. In the sentence Skiing is a wonderful sport, skiing is a gerund used as the subject. If a pronoun precedes the gerund, the pronoun is generally in the possessive form.

  • Bill told me about his snowboarding down a mountainside.
  • She liked my calling her before I came over.
  • Her winning the lottery stunned us all.

The exception to this rule occurs when the pronoun follows verbs such as see, hear, and watch. In that case, use the objective form of the pronoun. 

  • We didn’t see him leaving the house. 
  • The whole neighborhood heard us playing Nirvana.

Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns can be used to avoid repeating the noun within a sentence. They are particularly helpful when one clause is embedded in another, because they keep both clauses grammatical.

The relative pronouns who, whom, and whose refer to people and animals, while which and of which refer to things. That can refer to people or things.

  • This violin, which he learned to play as a child, is a valuable instrument. (Using which avoids repeating the noun—This violin, the violin he learned to play.)
  • The woman who bought the suit returned it the next day. (The woman she would be ungrammatical.)

Interrogative Pronouns

The interrogative pronouns who, whom, whose, what, and which introduce questions. Who, whom, and whose indicate that the question refers to a person or animal; what refers to an object, idea, or event; and which can indicate either a person or thing.

  • Who called last night?
  • What is your earliest memory?
  • You can have a latte or a café mocha. Which do you want?

Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns generally indicate nearness to or distance from the speaker, either literally or symbolically. This, these, that, and those usually refer to a specific noun, pronoun, or clause. However, sometimes the reference is to a general class of people or objects rather than to a specific antecedent.

  • This is my driver’s license, and that is my credit card. (The driver’s license is closer at hand.)
  • I don’t envy those stuck at the airport tonight. (Those has no specific antecedent but refers to a general class of people: anyone stuck at the airport.)

Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

The antecedent, as mentioned previously, is the word or phrase to which a pronoun refers. Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in person, case, and number.

Agreement in Person

  • Incorrect
    • The designer should know Quark thoroughly. Otherwise, you will have trouble creating book pages. (The pronoun you is in the second person, while its antecedent designer is in the third person. Therefore the correct pronoun is the third person he or she.)
  • Correct
    • The designer should know Quark thoroughly. Otherwise, he or she will have trouble creating book pages.

Agreement in Case

  • Incorrect
    • Is that Shaneel and Donna over there? Yes, it’s them. (The objective case them is incorrect. The nominative case they is the correct form, even though it may sound strange to your ears.)
  • Correct
    • Is that Shaneel and Donna over there? Yes, it’s they.

Agreement in Number

  • Incorrect
    • The data are obsolete and should be replaced. We can’t use it any longer. (The plural noun data is the antecedent and requires the plural pronoun them.)
  • Correct
    • The data are obsolete and should be replaced. We can’t use them any longer.

Imprecise Use of Pronouns. Pronouns should refer to a specific antecedent. Many writers misuse the pronouns this, that, which, it, and they by making them refer to entire sentences or ideas. Such errors can confuse the reader and must be avoided.

  • Vague
    • He wanted to raise the walls, put on the roof, and hang the doors all in one day. This was unrealistic. (The pronoun this refers to the sentence and not to any specific antecedent.)
  • Precise
    • His schedule was to raise the walls, put on the roof, and hang the doors all in one day. This was unrealistic. (The pronoun now refers to the antecedent schedule.)
  • Vague
    • The engineer asked for a meeting to discuss the new contract. I told her we couldn’t do that. (The antecedent for the pronoun that is unclear. Is it the meeting or the discussion that the speaker is declining?)
  • Precise
    • The engineer asked if we could meet at her office. I told her we couldn’t do that. (In this sentence that refers to the clause meet at her office.)

Double Antecedents. When and joins two antecedents, use a plural pronoun. If the antecedents are joined by nor or or, or when they form a unit (ham and eggs), use a singular pronoun.

  • An elm and a maple tree cast their shadows across the lawn.
  • Neither Harriet nor Claire has her keycard today.
  • Research and Development had its budget slashed this year.

Who or Whom?

The confusion over when to use who or whom has bothered writers for many years. In modern usage, the trend has been to drop the more formal-sounding whom and to use who in all cases. Following are the rules for using these two pronouns.

  1. Who is used as the subject of a sentence or a clause (group of words containing a subject and verb) and never as an object.
    • Who said we wouldn’t make a profit? (Who is the subject of the sentence.)
    • Can you tell who is talking right now? (Who is the subject of the clause.)
    • The job goes to whoever answers the ad first. (Whoever is the subject of the clause.)
  2. Whom is always used in the objective case as the object of a verb or preposition. It is never used as the subject.
    • Address the letter “To Whom It May Concern.” (Whom is the object of the preposition to.)
    • Whom did you see at the opera? (Whom is the object of the verb see.)
    • Are there any singers whom you would recommend? (You is the subject of the verb recommend; whom is the object of that verb.)
    • The job goes to whomever you call first. (Whomever is the object of the verb call. You is the subject. Compare this sentence with the one using whoever.)