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Concourse 2

Personal pronouns

pronouns

The clue's in the name.  Pro-nouns stand for nouns.
If you have done the guide to them, you'll know that nouns can be proper (John, Paris etc.), common count (table, dog, house, excuse etc.), common mass (love, help, water, happiness etc.), collective (jury, army, flock, management etc.) and plural (scissors, contents, clothes etc.).  Pronouns can stand in for any of these sorts of nouns.


persongendercase

Person, gender and Case

Before we can understand pronouns, we need to understand three main grammatical categories.

  1. person
    this refers to who.  There are three categories (in English):
    1. First person
      • Singular – I, me, my, myself etc.
      • Plural – we, us, our, ourselves etc.
    2. Second person (English does not usually distinguish between singular and plural – most languages do.)
      • Singular – you, your, yourself etc.
      • Plural – you, your, yourselves etc.
    3. Third person
      • Singular – he, she, it, one, him, her, his, hers, its, herself, himself etc.
      • Plural – they, them, their, themselves etc.
  2. gender
    There are two definitions of gender in English:
    1. a reference to the usual two sexes, male or female, with regard to social and cultural phenomena as in, for example:
          The company does not tolerate gender discrimination
    2. a technical reference in the field of linguistics to a grammatical category.
      French, for example, has two genders which happen to be called masculine and feminine but German, along with a range of other languages has three, including neuter.  The naming of genders by sex leads to all kinds of confusion but the term refers, in fact, to a class of nouns and has little to do with the cultural and social definition.  There is no obvious reason why, for example, table should be seen as feminine and car as masculine.  In German, for example, the term for a young girl is marked as neuter.  Some languages have more than three classes of nouns and some have many more (up to 20, depending how you count and including concepts such as animate vs. inanimate, dangerous vs. harmless and so on).
      Old English had three genders as does Modern German but there was a confusing and inconsistent use of gender even for nouns which were marked for sex.  The Old English word fædernmæg, for example, referred to the paternal side of the family but was grammatically feminine.
      In Modern English, gender is only shown in the pronoun system and there is no longer a distinction between, for example, the articles (a, an, the) used for nouns even when the gender is marked on the noun so we have, e.g.:
          the duchess
          the king
          a brother-in-law
          a lion
          an actress

      etc.
      In the case of pronouns, however, English is also rather poor in only distinguishing gender in the singular third person.
      • he, she, it
      • him, her, it
      • his, her, its
      • his, hers, its
      • himself, herself, itself
      All other pronouns: I, me, my, you, your, we, us, our, they, them etc. are unmarked for gender.  Even the limited-use third-person pronoun, one, is unmarked for gender.
  3. case
    this refers to who is doing what to whom or what belongs to whom.  There are four categories (but arguably only three in English):
    1. Subject / nominative case I or we refers to the subject of the verb.  For example, in
          I smoke
      the subject is I and in
      John arrived
      the subject is John.
      In English the subject usually comes first.
    2. Direct object / accusative case – this refers to the recipient of the action.  For example, in
          I told John
      I is the subject and John is the object and in
          She drank the whiskey
      She is the subject and the whiskey is the object.
    3. Indirect object / dative case (in many languages but in English this is also accusative) – refers to the recipient of a direct object.  A verb may have two objects:
      In
          I gave the book to John
      we have one direct object (the book) and one indirect object (John).  In English we can reverse the order of the objects, dropping the preposition, to:
          I gave John the book
      Languages with case grammars will often distinguish between the two types of object by changing the form of the article or the noun (or both).  English does not have a separate pronoun for indirect objects and for this reason, it is hardly worth taking the time to identify the dative case in English.  But some languages do.
    4. Possessive / genitive case – refers to possession (among other things).  For example, in
          I saw John's cat
      the 's is referred as the 'genitive s' and in
          That's my book
      my is the genitive or possessive marker.
      It is slightly loose to call this possessive in English because in phrases such as:
          the leg of the table
          the policy of the company
          the people's vote
          the father of the children
          Mary's letter to me

      and so on, the sense is not of possession but of origin, description or attachment.

Many languages you may speak or have studied make much ado about case and the technical term for the changes to words that result from it is called declension, but English is (relatively) simple in this respect.
Before we go on, if there's any doubt that you have understood this, take a test to make sure.


three

Personal pronouns

There are three main classes of personal pronouns


subject object

Object and Subject

I take a picture of her
She takes a picture of me
 

These are the most familiar and they look like this:

  subject object
1st person singular I me
plural we us
2nd person singular you
plural
3rd person singular masculine he him
feminine she her
impersonal it
*neuter they them
plural they them
*The use of a neuter plural forms, they and them, is increasingly common to represent a singular person not marked for sex.  See the note below under avoiding sexist language.

Notes:

  1. As we will discover throughout, English lacks many pronouns which exist in other languages:
    1. English has no polite and familiar forms of address for you.  Compare French tu and vous, German du, Sie and ihr etc.  In fact, English makes do with only one pronoun for both cases in the singular and the plural where other languages may have up to four forms.
    2. English uses it for both the subject and the object case.
    3. English only distinguishes gender in the third person singular.  For the plurals, we don't.  In this chart, it is referred to as neuter but, because English actually doesn't worry too much about gender for inanimate nouns (with rare exceptions), a better term is probably the impersonal pronoun.  It is analysed here rather than in the section on impersonal pronouns simply because it shares structural characteristics with personal pronouns.
  2. Although English has both subject and object cases, it is, in fact, generally rather lax (some would say downright sloppy) in the use of the correct case form.  Here's a short pedantry test.  Which of the following would you consider 'correct'.  Make a note and then click here for some comments.
1 Who did it?  Me. Who did it?  I.
2 I didn't know who did it but it turned out to be she. I didn't know who did it but it turned out to be her.
3 Between you and I ... Between you and me ...
possess

Possessive or genitive

It's my acorn  

There are also two sets of these:

possessive determiner pronoun
my mine
our ours
your yours
his
her hers
its  
their theirs
The use of neuter plural forms, their and theirs, is increasingly common to represent a singular person not marked for gender.  See the note below under avoiding sexist language.

Notes:

  1. The difference between the two columns:
    In the first column, the words are determiners.  They identify or limit nouns in some way just like words like the, some and that doFor example
        I ate some bread
        I ate
    her bread
        I stole the money
        I stole
    their money
    and so on.  The words in the first column are sometimes called possessive adjectives but that is rather an old-fashioned term More accurately, and always on this site, they are possessive determiners.
    In the second column, the words can stand as nouns (just like 'proper' pronouns).  For example
        My coat is here; hers isn't.
        Their car is more useful than
    mine.
    We can replace possessive pronouns by reverting to the noun with the possessive determiner so mine = my car, hers = her coat etc.  These words are, therefore, referred to as possessive pronouns or nominal possessives.
  2. The reason its only appears once is that it is not possible to use it as a possessive pronoun.  We can use it as a possessive determiner in, e.g.:
        What's wrong with the table?  Its leg is loose.
    but not as a possessive pronoun because that would give something like
        *Which leg is loose?  Its.
    (It is marginally possible to use its as a possessive pronoun in a comment such as:
        I hurt my leg and the dog hurt its
    but many would never accept that.)
  3. The possessive determiner its is frequently confused with the contracted form of it is or it has (it's).  So we get, e.g.:
        *Its important to ...
    or
        *It's leg is broken.
    Please don't do this.  The form with the apostrophe is always the contraction of is or has.
  4. his is both a possessive determiner and a possessive pronoun
        It is his book
        It is his

    That can confuse lower-level learners.
  5. English uses possessive determiners to refer to parts of the body.  Many languages will not have parallel structures for something like
        She cut her finger
    preferring
        She cut the finger
    or even
        *She cut herself the finger
    We do, however, often use the article in passive sentences.  For example,
        I must have been dropped on the head as a baby
    but even here the possessive determiner is possible.
reflexive

Reflexive pronouns

Photographing themselves  

English uses reflexive pronouns but does not have an obsession about them.  The language does not, for example, insist that some verbs are always reflexive as many languages do so we do not usually say:
    I washed myself
allowing
    I washed
to be interpreted as reflexive when no object is identified.

First person singular myself
plural ourselves
Second person singular yourself
plural yourselves
Third person masculine himself
feminine herself
non-personal itself
*neuter themselves
plural themselves
*The use of a neuter plural form is increasingly common to represent a singular person not marked for gender.  See the note below under avoiding sexist language.

Notes:

  1. These are referred to as co-referentials (i.e., they refer to the same thing) in some grammars.  We don't say, for example,
        Sue wrote Sue a note
    unless there are two Sues, but prefer
        Sue wrote herself a note
    When we use an object to refer to the same noun as the subject, in other words, English uses the reflexive pronoun.
  2. English has few obligatorily reflexive verbs.  We don't, for example, meet ourselves (as we do in German), remember ourselves (as we do in many languages) or (usually) wash ourselves.  However, we can make many transitive verbs reflexive if we want to:
        I poured myself a drink
        She drove herself home

    etc.
  3. This is the area where English actually does have a full set of pronouns, even to the extent of distinguishing between you plural and you singular (yourself vs. yourselves).
  4. You may hear or (perish the thought) be tempted to use theirselves instead of themselves.  It's considered wrong in educated use.  See the note on themself below.
intense

Intensive pronouns

Intensive pronouns have, in English, exactly the same form as reflexive pronouns but they perform a different role.
For example, if we take a sentence such as:
    The author congratulated himself
then we can see that the author and himself refer to the same person.  That is to say that the object of the verb is the same as the subject of the verb.  That's what is meant, of course, by the term reflexive.
However, in:
    The author signed my copy himself
then we can see that the subject of the verb is still the author but the object of the verb is no longer the author, it is my copy and the pronoun himself stands for nothing at all in the sentence and just helps to emphasise that it is important to the speaker.  In other words, it intensifies the expression.
The difference is that we can omit the pronoun altogether and still retain the same meaning of the clause.
Here's another two examples to make the point clear:

  1. The President helped himself to lunch
  2. The President himself came to lunch

In sentence 1. we cannot omit the pronoun and arrive at:
    *The President helped to lunch
because that makes no sense.  The meaning of this sentence is that the President served lunch to himself and was not waited on.
But, in sentence 2. we can omit the pronoun and arrive at:
    The President came to lunch
without altering the meaning of the sentence, although we lose the emphasis that the speaker wants to signal: i.e., that it is important.

Above, we were careful to note that in English the reflexive and intensive pronouns take the same form.  That is not a language universal and sometimes leads to some misunderstanding of what the sentence really means.
For example:

multi

it, its and itself

As we saw above, the pronoun it is usually analysed as a personal pronoun because it shares the characteristics of the class (bar the fact that there is no nominal use).  More accurately, in terms of meaning rather than structure, it should be described as an impersonal pronoun.  Generally, as might be expected, the pronoun stands for singular inanimate objects or 'lower' forms of life so we have
    Where's the wasp?  It's behind you.
    What's that?  It's a new computer program.

and so on.
The pronoun has, however, some quirks in English, not always parallelled in other languages.

  1. The pronoun can be used to refer to people:
    1. If the sex is unknown or unimportant:
          That's her baby
          Oh?  What's its name
          Is that child OK?  It looks a bit sick.
    2. With personal reference:
          Who's speaking?
          It's John
  2. The pronoun is frequently used for higher animals if the sex is unknown or unimportant.  When the animal is, however, familiar to the speaker, the appropriately marked pronoun is preferred.
  3. It can refer to a previous text, written or spoken, in the way the pronoun that can be used:
        She failed her examination and that was a shock.
        She failed her examination and it was a shock.
  4. It can be a substitute for a prepositional phrase:
        I put it in the cupboard.  It was the obvious place
  5. It can act as an empty or dummy subject when talking about the time, the weather etc.:
        It's snowing
        It's almost seven
  6. It can act as in anticipatory subject filling a similar role in the sentence:
        It is difficult to learn grammar
        It is a shame that he can't come to the party
        It is wrong to speak to her like that
    This is a phenomenon also called a dummy subject or the existential it.

In languages which have a neuter gender, such as German, Greek and many Slavic languages, the neuter pronoun overrides the sex of the noun so, for example, because the German word for the girl is a diminutive and carries the neuter gender (as das Mädchen), the correct use is, e.g.:
    There is a girl outside and it is asking to talk to you
Many languages do not deploy a dummy or anticipatory subject and that can lead to inter-language error such as:
    To speak Chinese is difficult
which is grammatical possible but unnatural.


Here's a summary as a graphic so you can save or print it out easily.

summary
Adapted from Quirk, R & Greenbaum, S (1973:102) with additions
*The singular unmarked row is a recent addition to reflect the increasing use of the pronouns they, them, their, theirs to refer to a singular individual unmarked for gender, avoiding his or her, he or she etc.  See below for a note on the pronoun themself.

ones and one's

Missing from the charts above is the impersonal, rather formal pronoun one.  Here's how it works:

  1. As a subject pronoun, it is singular only and appears in clauses such as
        One must always remember that ...
  2. There is no object pronoun form so we can't have
        *He told one that ...
        *Give it to one!

    etc.  It can, somewhat rarely, and quite formally, be used in the passive, however:
        One has been told ...
    etc.
  3. The possessive determiner is one's as in One must always do one's best.
  4. There is no possessive pronoun form so we can't have, e.g.,
        Whose is that?
        *It's ones.
  5. There is a rarely used reflexive pronoun, oneself, which occurs in, e.g., One must try to be true to oneself.

blue pink

Personal pronouns and sexist language

In olden times (i.e., before around 1990) it was considered acceptable for people to use he, him, his as what is called an unmarked pronoun form applicable to either female or male people.  Times have changed and that is no longer the case so we have a number of results:

  1. The increasing use of plural forms for an unmarked pronoun.
    Because English happens not to mark the gender of the referent in the plural, the pronouns they, them, their and theirs are frequently used to avoid the awkward his or her, he or she formulations.  For example:
        When a new student registers, they are given a test
    Usually, it is a simple matter to avoid this in formal language by making the whole utterance plural and having:
        When new students register they are given a test
    and that conforms to the grammar of the language as well as the norms of a non-sexist culture.
    (There are times when this use is almost unavoidable, however, as in, for example:
        Whoever said that has got their facts wrong
        If someone said they saw me they were mistaken.
    )
  2. The occasional use in quite formal writing of alternate uses of he, she, his, hers and so on to balance the article or text.  This can result in some clumsiness, especially when instigated in alternating paragraphs.
  3. An increased use of the conveniently unmarked pronoun one.
  4. An effort by a few people to invent a non-sexist pronoun set.  This is difficult because pronouns are what is known as a closed-class set of words and introducing new ones into such sets is a rare and troublesome process.  It can happen but it usually takes many years for a new item to be accepted.  For example, hizzer has been suggested as an alternative to his or her and heesh as an alternative to he or she.
    In around 1990, a mathematician, Michael Spivak, used three personal pronouns which he sought to establish as unmarked forms.  They are:
    e for the subject pronouns he and she (pronounced /iː/)
    em for the object pronouns him and her (pronounced /əm/ or /em/)
    eir for the genitive pronouns and determiners his and her (pronounced /eə/ or /eər/)
    To those three others have added:
    eirs for the genitive pronouns hers and his (pronounced /eərz/ or /eəz/)
    emself for the reflexive pronouns herself and himself (pronounced /əm.ˈself/ or /em.ˈself/)
    This set of unmarked pronouns is usually referred to as the Spivak pronouns but has yet to become popular, leave alone conventional.
  5. The ad hoc invention of new pronouns as writers go along.  Here's one from the British Broadcasting Corporation:

    the tendency of managers to hire two or more subordinates to report to them so that neither is in direct competition with the manager themself
    BBC website, 2019 (emphasis added)

    The pronoun themself does not actually exist in Modern English.  It is an uneasy mix of the plural and singular and many users of English would disparage it.  See the footnote.
binary

Non-binary uses

There is increasing recognition that people do not universally fall neatly into the categories of masculine and feminine and there are many who claim to be non-binary and demand to be referred to as they or them.
One cannot, of course, successfully set down rules for people to use in this way but it should be noted that the use of the ostensibly plural they to refer to a single individual unmarked for gender has a long history going back at least 600 years.
The use of their to refer to a singular person is often scorned by grammarians but, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is attested from at least 1300CE and appears in the writings of, e.g., Fielding, Goldsmith, Sydney Smith, and Thackeray.
Merriam-Webster made they their word of the year in 2019 to recognise the increasing use of it to refer to a single person irrespective of sex.


The above has not covered all the pronouns in English because it is confined to personal pronouns.  Words like, all, something, anything, everyone etc. are, or can also be, pronouns.  For those, see the guide to impersonal and indefinite pronouns in the in-service section of the site, linked below.



Related guides (most of these are in the in-service training section and more complicated)
the word-class map for links to guides to the other major word classes
pronouns: overview for a very brief guide to the whole area
impersonal and indefinite pronouns the guide to the other major class of pronouns
pronouns in English go here for a list (new tab)
determiners many pronouns can, in other environments, act as determiners
demonstratives go here for a simple guide to demonstrative determiners and pronouns
cohesion for more on how referencing holds language together
markedness for more on how English marks things for case, gender, number and so on


Take the test.


Reference:
BBC news website, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20191107-the-law-that-explains-why-you-cant-get-anything-done, accessed 8/11/2019
Quirk, R & Greenbaum, S, 1973, A University Grammar of English, Harlow: Longman


Footnote on themself
There is no entry for themself in the current Oxford English Dictionary online (https://www.oed.com).  However, it is noted that themself was the normal form of the third person plural reflexive pronoun until about 1540.  It had disappeared by about 1570.  Later, themselves became the standard form.  The form themself is labelled by that source as rare, disputed or not widely accepted.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/themself) notes that the rise of themself, if it occurs, will be related to the increasingly common use of the singular they.  The editors did not judge that it was anything but rare in edited and published materials.
The form may be re-emerging but an expression such as:
    The manager may consider themself an expert
will still not be widely welcomed in formal writing.