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.

In a sentence, the antecedent is the noun that the pronoun refers back to.

  • Jason likes it when people look to him for leadership. (Here, the pronoun “him” refers back to Jason.)
  • Trini does her hair and makeup every day—with no exceptions. (Here, the pronoun “her” refers back to Trini.)

Sometimes, the antecedents for our pronouns are not clear, and that’s a problem. Let’s take a look at  two examples and possible revisions.

  • Example: Jason loves it when Gautam rubs his feet.

Does Jason love when Guatum rubs Jason’s feet? Or does Jason love it when Gautum rubs his own feet? It’s kind of confusing. Which of the names/nouns (Jason/Gautum) is the antecedent for his?

Revision: Jason loves it when Gautum rubs Jason’s feet.

  • Example: To keep the students from using their cell phones in school, keep them in a plastic bag.

Do you see what’s unclear in this sentence? Are we keeping the students in a plastic bag or their cell phones?

Better: To keep the students from using their cell phones in school, the phones might be kept in a plastic bag.

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.

  • Danny and Sam decided that they didn’t want to go to the zoo on Saturday. (Danny and Sam is the antecedent of they.)
  • Ibrahim thought that he would rather turn in incomplete homework than pull another all-nighter. (Ibrahim is the antecedent of he.)

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 myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, themselves.

Try It


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.”

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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.

  • 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.

Try It

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.)

Relative Pronouns

There are five relative pronouns in English: who, whom, whose, that, and which.

First, don’t confuse who and that. We use who for people and that for things.

  • 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.

Note: Some people consider animals to be almost like people, so the following sentence might considered correct:

I love my dog, who sleeps in my bed, the same way a child might. (You can see why who works better than that here.)

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

As the video below explains, the rules for that and which are somewhat in flux and debatable. But there is a simple rule of thumb, as explained in the video below, that helps.

Which is bad with people. That doesn’t like commas.

  • Correct: The lady who runs every morning is my aunt.
  • Incorrect: The lady which runs every morning is my aunt.
  • Incorrect: The lady that runs every morning is my aunt.

Correct: The carrot that is tasty is in the salad.

Correct: The carrot, which is tasty, is in the salad.

Incorrect: The carrot, that is tasty, is in the salad.

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

Who vs. Whom

Like that and which, who and whom are evolving in usage. As the video below explains, who is becoming more and more acceptable, and whom is being used less.


Correct: The student who aced her exams.

Incorrect: The student whom aced her exams.


Correct: The teacher whom I learned from.

Once considered incorrect but now ok: The teacher who I learned from.


So, you really only need to worry about using whom incorrectly. If you understand about subjects and objects, great.


If not, here’s a trick.


“The teacher whom I learned from” can be rearranged as “I learned from the teacher” or “I learned from him.” Him and whom both end in “m.”


Let’s test it with the incorrect example above: “The student whom aced her exams.” That can be rearranged as “aced her exams the teacher.” That makes no sense. Similarly, “aced her exams him” makes no sense.

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.