What Is a Pronoun? Personal Pronouns, Possessive Pronouns, and More
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Is a Pronoun a Noun?
It is debatable whether pronouns are a type of noun or a word class of their own. Because the issue is unresolved, I will not give a definite answer to this question here. Instead, I will provide the arguments used to support either side of the debate.
Those who feel that pronouns are their own word class argue the following:
Pronouns can be altered to indicate person, but common nouns cannot.
When using common nouns, there is only one way to identify something. That is, you can only identify “a cat” by using the word cat. Differently, when pronouns are used, several words can be used to identify “a single person” (e.g., I, you, she).
Common nouns can take plural inflections, but pronouns cannot.
For example, to talk about more than one cat, you would use the inflectional plural form of cat: cats. Pronouns are not pluralized in this way. For example, she is not pluralized by becoming shes. Instead the word is changed completely to they.
Pronouns change case depending on where they are used in a sentence, but common nouns do not.
The word cat, for example, does not change if it is moved within a sentence.
“The cat was given food.”
“Food was given to the cat.”
Pronouns, on the other hand, do change when moved.
“I was given food.”
“Food was given to me.”
Unlike common nouns, pronouns cannot be preceded by adjectives and other words.
You can add an almost limitless string of words before a noun without compromising the grammatical correctness of a sentence.
“The three large, fat, happy cats were asleep.”
This cannot be done when a pronoun is used.
“The three large, fat, happy they were asleep,”
As can be seen, there are several valid reasons for arguing that pronouns should be considered their own word class. The counterargument to this is that pronouns and common nouns have the same purpose. Also, because pronouns can replace nouns in any given phrase, they can head noun phrases. Therefore, even though pronouns cannot be manipulated in the same way that nouns can, they have the same basic function.
This single argument holds more weight than any of those given for pronouns being their own part of speech. I have conducted a survey of the literature and online discussions on this topic. I have found that grammarians are becoming increasingly open to the idea that pronouns are a type of noun rather than being their own word class. However, some strongly believe that pronouns are a type of noun.
Different Types of Pronouns
People who are learning to speak English are often taught that there are four types of pronouns: (i) subject pronouns, (ii) object pronouns, (iii) possessive pronouns, and (iv) reflexive pronouns. These pronoun types are outlined in the chart below. (The chart also includes possessive adjectives, which have many of the characteristics of pronouns).
While this method of classifying pronouns is nice and tidy, there are actually more types of pronouns than this. When pronouns are defined according to their function within a sentence, there are eight pronoun types.
A personal pronoun is a pronoun that stands in place of and acts as a noun phrase. Personal pronouns include I, your, him, hers, it, one, us, and they.* Notice that all of the nouns from three of the four “basic” pronoun types fit into this category. This is because they all function similarly.
A personal pronoun can be the subject of a sentence (“He was hungry”), or it can be an object (“I like him“). Additionally, a personal pronoun can take a genitive (possessive) case (“This gift is his).”
A reflexive pronoun is used in the same phrase as the noun to which it refers. Reflexive pronouns end in -self or -selves. Every personal pronoun has a reflexive form, as can be seen in the chart above.
The following example contains a reflexive pronoun:
“I bought myself some flowers.”
Because the pronoun I is used in the same clause twice, it is converted into its reflexive form the second time it is used. Failing to use the reflexive form of the pronoun would lead to an ungrammatical sentence.
“I bought I some flowers.”
“I bought me some flowers.”
In casual speech, some English speakers might utter sentences like this second example. While their meaning would be clear, such phrases are considered incorrect.
I should emphasize that the reflexive form of a pronoun is used only when the same pronoun is used twice in the same phrase.
Correct: “He bought me some flowers.”
Incorrect: “He bought myself some flowers.”
Reciprocal pronouns are short phrases that act like reflexive pronouns. However, when a reciprocal pronoun is used, it indicates that an action is being carried out at the same time by two or more individuals. Also, it is assumed that the individuals experience the consequences of the action equally.
There are only two reciprocal pronouns in the English language: one another (when referring to two individuals) and each other (when referring to three or more individuals).
The two examples below illustrate how reciprocal pronouns compare to reflexive pronouns.
Reflexive pronoun: “Jackie and Charles bought dinner for themselves.”
Reciprocal pronoun: “Jackie and Charles bought dinner for one another.”
The two sentences mean almost the same thing but not quite. When a reflexive pronoun is used, the sentence tells the reader that Jackie and Charles pooled their money together in some way to buy their dinner. When a reciprocal pronoun is used, the reader is told that Jackie paid for Charles’s dinner and Charles paid for Jackie’s dinner.
A relative pronoun is positioned at the beginning of a relative clause (i.e., a clause that gives additional information about a noun). Commonly used relative pronouns include that, who, whom, whose, and which.
The following sentence includes a relative pronoun within a relative clause. (I have enclosed the relative clause in brackets.)
“The old man [who always comes in here on Thursdays] did not order his usual drink today.”
Free Relative Pronouns
A free relative pronoun is a relative pronoun that is not linked to any noun given in the sentence. Who, whoever, and whatever are common free relative pronouns.
In the example of a relative pronoun given above, it is easy to see that the pronoun who refers to an old man. In the example of a free relative pronoun below, whatever doesn’t refer to any other word in the sentence.
“I like being able to do whatever I want.”
Thus, whatever is a free relative pronoun in this sentence.
An interrogative pronoun is placed at the beginning of an interrogative clause (i.e., a clause that asks a question). Who, whose, what, and which can all be used as interrogative pronouns.
Interrogative pronouns are used very similarly to relative pronouns. The difference is in their purpose: Interrogative pronouns are used to ask a question, whereas relative pronouns are used to give additional information about a noun. The relative clause in the example used earlier can be made into an interrogative clause simply by being lifted from the sentence.
Relative pronoun: “The old man [who always comes in here on Thursdays] did not order his usual drink today.”
Interrogative pronoun: “Who always comes in here on Thursdays?”
Demonstrative pronouns point to a specific thing or set of things. These pronouns are often followed by a form of the verb to be. They are never immediately followed by a noun. If this were the case, the word would not be a pronoun but a determiner.
There are four demonstrative pronouns in the English language: this, that, these, and those. The following examples illustrate when these words are pronouns and when they are not.
Demonstrative pronoun: “This is a perfect day.”
This is a pronoun because it is the subject of the sentence. It is followed by a form of to be.
Determiner: “This day is perfect.”
This is not a pronoun because it is directly followed by a noun (day). The word day is the subject of this sentence. The word this simply indicates which day is being discussed.
Indefinite pronouns are said to be indefinite because they do not refer to a specific or identifiable person, thing, or set of people/things. As with demonstrative pronouns, indefinite pronouns cannot be immediately followed by a noun. When followed by a noun, these words are determiners instead of pronouns. Some common indefinite pronouns are few, many, and each.
The examples below illustrate the difference between an indefinite pronoun and a determiner.
Indefinite pronoun: “Few have gotten this far.”
Note that it is impossible for us to define exactly what or who the word few refers to.
Determiner: “Few people have gotten this far.”
The word few is no longer the subject of the phrase. People is the subject. Few merely describes the relative amount of people being discussed.
Pronouns are a rather confusing part of the English language, and even experts of the language can’t decide how they should be categorized. Also, many people are taught that there are only four types of pronouns even though many types of words can function as pronouns. Moreover, many words that can serve as pronouns also often act as determiners. All of this makes identifying and using pronouns one of the most difficult aspects of writing proper English.
*The possessive forms of these pronouns (e.g., my, your, its) are sometimes classified as determiners instead of pronouns. This is because they cannot replace a noun — they need to precede a noun to make sense. However, a defining characteristic of a determiner is that they can never take a possessive form. Therefore, words such as my are better defined as a special kind of pronoun than as a determiner.
Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.