Pronoun Cases and Types

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and correctly use pronouns

A pronoun stands in the place of a noun. Like nouns, pronouns can serve as the subject or object of a sentence: they are the things sentences are about. Pronouns include words like heshe, and I, but they also include words like this, that, which, who, anybody, and everyone. Before we get into the different types of pronouns, let’s look at how they work in sentences.

Because a pronoun is replacing a noun, its meaning is dependent on the noun that it is replacing. This noun is called the antecedent. Let’s look at the first sentence of this paragraph again:

Because a pronoun is replacing a noun, its meaning is dependent on the noun that it is replacing.

There are two pronouns here: its and itIts and it both have the same antecedent: “a pronoun.” Whenever you use a pronoun, you must also include its antecedent. Without the antecedent, your readers (or listeners) won’t be able to figure out what the pronoun is referring to. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • Jason likes it when people look to him for leadership.
  • Trini does her hair and makeup every day—with no exceptions.

So, what are the antecedents and pronouns in these sentences?

  • Jason is the antecedent for the pronoun him.
  • Trini is the antecedent for the pronoun her.

So far, we’ve only looked at personal pronouns, but there are other types, too, including demonstrative and indefinite pronouns. Let’s discuss each of these in further depth:

Personal Pronouns

An outline of three figures.

Personal pronouns are what most people think of when they see the word pronoun. Personal pronouns include words like he, she, and they. The following sentences give examples of personal pronouns used with antecedents (remember, an antecedent is the noun that a pronoun refers to!):

  • Danny and Sam decided that they didn’t want to go to the zoo on Saturday. (Danny and Sam is the antecedent of they)
  • Ben thought that he would rather turn in incomplete homework than pull another all-nighter. (Ben is the antecedent of he)
  • When she heard that Zak had spent all his lunch money again, Mary yelled at him and demanded that he use his funds more wisely. (Mary is the antecedent of she and Zak is the antecedent of he, him, and his)
  • The guy who stands on 4th street looks suspicious, but he actually just prefers to dress that way. (The guy is the antecedent of he)
Note: Pronouns like Iwe, and you don’t always require an explicitly stated antecedent. When a speaker says something like “I told you the zoo was closed today,” it’s implied that the speaker is the antecedent for I and the listener is the antecedent for you.

Reflexive pronouns are a kind of pronoun that are used when the subject and the object of the sentence are the same.

  • Jason hurt himself. (Jason is the antecedent of himself)

This is true even if the subject is only implied, as in the sentence “Don’t hurt yourself.” You is the unstated subject of this sentence.

Reflexive pronouns include myselfourselves, yourselfyourselves, himselfherselfitselfthemselves. They can only be used as the object of a sentence—not as the subject. You can say, “I jinxed myself,” but you can’t say, “Myself jinxed me.”

Note: When the first- or second-person reflexive pronoun is appropriate, object case and reflexive pronouns can often be used interchangeably:

  • The only person I’m worrying about today is me.
  • The only person I’m worrying about today is myself.
  • You don’t need to make anyone happy except you.
  • You don’t need to make anyone happy except yourself.

Why do you think this is? When would you use one or the other?

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Pronoun Classification

Pronouns may be classified by three categories: person, number, and case.

Person

Person (separated into three categories-first, second, and third) defines how the author and the text relate to each other.

  • First person means that the author is also the subject or actor. People speak in first person, saying “I made,” “I thought,” “I said.”
  • Second person is when some other, separate entity is being directly addressed, saying, “you made,” “you thought,” “you said.”
  • Third person refers to an entity separate from both the speaker and the listener. Third person would contain phrases like “it made,” “she thought,” “he said.”

Number

There are two numbers: singular and plural. As we learned with regard to nouns, singular pronouns refer to one thing or person while plural pronouns refer to more than one of a thing or person (I stood alone while they walked together).

Case

English personal pronouns have two cases: subject and object. Subject-case pronouns are used when the pronoun is doing the action (I like to eat chips, but she does not). Object-case pronouns are used when something is being done to the pronoun (John likes me but not her).

Possessive pronouns are used to indicate possession (in a broad sense). Some must be accompanied by a noun: e.g., my or your, as in “I lost my wallet.” This category of pronouns behaves similarly to adjectives. Others occur as independent phrases: e.g., mine or yours. For example, “Those clothes are mine.”

The table below includes all of the personal pronouns in the English language. They are organized by person, number, and case:

singular plural
subject object subject object
first person I me we us
second person you you
third person, neutral it it they them
third person, feminine she her they them
third person, masculine he him they them
possessive adjective (singular) possessive adjective (plural) possessive pronoun
first person my our mine
second person your your yours
third person, neutral its their its
third person, feminine her their hers
third person, masculine his their his

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Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns substitute for things being pointed out. They include thisthat, these, and those. This and that are singular; these and those are plural.

Two location symbols connected by a dotted line.The difference between this and that and between these and those is a little more subtle. This and these refer to something that is “close” to the speaker, whether this closeness is physical, emotional, or temporal. That and those are the opposite: they refer to something that is “far.”

  • Do I really have to read all of this?
    • By using “this,” the speaker is indicating a text that is close to her.
  • That is not coming anywhere near me.
    • The speaker is distancing himself from the object in question, which he doesn’t want to get any closer. The far pronoun helps indicate that.
  • You’re telling me you sewed all of these?
    • The speaker and her audience are likely looking directly at the clothes in question, so the close pronoun is appropriate.
  • Those are all gross.
    • The speaker wants to remain away from the gross items in question, by using the far “those.”

Note: these pronouns are often combined with a noun. In such cases they act as a kind of adjective instead of as a pronoun.

  • Do I really have to read all of this contract?
  • That thing is not coming anywhere near me.
  • You’re telling me you sewed all of these dresses?
  • Those recipes are all gross.

The antecedents of demonstrative pronouns (and sometimes the pronoun it) can be more complex than those of personal pronouns:

  • Animal Planet’s puppy cam has been taken down for maintenance. I never wanted this to happen.
  • I love Animal Planet’s panda cam. I watched a panda eat bamboo for half an hour. It was amazing.

In the first example, the antecedent for this is the entire idea of the puppy cam being taken down. In the second example, the antecedent for it is the experience of watching the panda. In both cases, the antecedents aren’t explicitly stated and must be inferred by the reader.

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Indefinite Pronouns

A dotted line outline of a person.

Indefinite pronouns, the largest group of pronouns, refer to one or more unspecified persons or things. For example: Anyone can do that.

These pronouns can be used in several ways:

  • They can refer to members of a group separately rather than collectively. (To each his own.)
  • They can indicate the nonexistence of people or things. (Nobody thinks that.)
  • They can refer to a person but without specifying first, second, or third person in the way that personal pronouns do. (One does not clean one’s own windows.)

The table below shows the most common indefinite pronouns:

anybody anyone anything each either every
everybody everyone everything neither no one nobody
nothing nobody else somebody someone something  one

Note: Sometimes third-person personal pronouns are used without antecedents, as in the following examples, which use a generic they and “dummy” pronoun:

  • You know what they say. (generic they)
  • It’s a nice day today. (“dummy” pronoun)

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Relative Pronouns

There are five relative pronouns in English: whowhomwhose, that, and which. These pronouns are used to connect different clauses. For example:

  • Belen, who had starred in six plays before she turned seventeen, knew that she wanted to act on Broadway someday.
  • My daughter wants to adopt the dog that doesn’t have a tail.

These pronouns behave differently from the other categories we’ve seen. However, they are pronouns, and it’s important to learn how they work.

Watch It

Two of the biggest confusions with relative pronouns are that vs. which and who vs. whom. The two following videos will help you keep them straight:

That vs. Which

You can view the transcript for “That versus which” here (opens in new window).

Who vs. Whom

You can view the transcript for “Who versus whom” here (opens in new window).

Try It

Does the following paragraph use relative pronouns correctly? Explain why or why not for each relative pronoun.

Katerina, whom had taken biology once already, was still struggling to keep the steps of cellular respiration straight. She knew the process took place in animals, which take in oxygen and put out carbon dioxide. She also knew that plants underwent the process of photosynthesis. However, the individual steps of the process seemed beyond her understanding.

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