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Pronouns

PRONOUNS: WHAT WE DECLINE TO TALK ABOUT

PronounsPronouns are categorized as one of the eight main parts of speech, but "one of the eight" is a little misleading. You'll see at right a menu of five other pages besides this devoted to pronoun topics.

When students hear mention of "pronouns," their first reaction is often, "I already know this: Pronouns substitute for nouns, blah, blah, blah." True enough. A pronoun stands in for a noun; that's why it's called a "pro + noun." But, there's a lot more to the topic of pronouns than just their definition—starting with the nouns they stand in for, called "antecedents."

Antecedents

The word "antecedent" derives from the verb "antecede": to go or occur before, in time or place; to precede. In grammar, the nouns or noun phrases for which pronouns substitute are their "antecedents." Ostensibly, an antecedent comes before the pronoun is used but, where word order in a sentence is concerned, it isn't always what happens. For instance:

Before she went on vacation for three weeks, Virginia
shut off the gas and electricity to her house.

In the example above, the subordinate clause "Before she went…" has been placed in front of, not after, the main clause, causing the pronoun antecedent "Virginia" to show up after, not before, the pronoun "she." This is irrelevant. Antecedent nouns may not literally antecede their pronouns on the page, but in concept they always do, since we could just as easily place the subordinate clause after the main clause:

Virginia shut off the gas and electricity to her
house before she went on vacation for three weeks.

Declension

The variety of pronouns used in English is determined in part by how they are declined—i. e., their declension. Pronoun "declension" is related to the verb "decline," but not "decline" in the sense of refusal; rather, "decline" in the sense of an angling, a leaning or a sloping downward (as in, the opposite of "incline"). Grammarians listing the order of pronouns also use the word "inflected" as a synonym for "declined." All of this is unnecessarily complicated, though, because "declined" in this sense is used here more figuratively than literally. In plain talk, pronoun declension simply means that a pronoun "leans" differently according to its number and its case. In fact, number, case, and person are the three main criteria by which pronouns are identified.

Pronouns Are Identified By Their Number

Pronouns are characterized as either singular or plural in number: "Singular" means one and only one; "Plural" means two or more. The number of a pronoun is determined by whether its antecedent is singular or plural.

Every dog staying at the kennel had its own dish it shared with no one.
Because dogs are territorial, they might try to keep other dogs from
common access to food and water.
Pronouns Are Identified By Their Person

"Personhood" in pronoun use is an ill-fitting concept for many struggling to understand the grammar of pronouns. However, if you think of communication as theater, and pronouns as your cast of characters, the whole thing might make a little more sense.

In fact, the origin of live drama in the Western tradition is Greek theater, whose word, "persona," means, both, an identity and a character mask. The happy and sad drama masks are called, "Dramatis Personae." The pronouns in English grammar are very much like these personae: they're masks and perspectives that define an intimate dialogue between the primary speaker (1st person, the "I") and the audience (2nd person, the "you") about people, places, things, and ideas (3rd person, "he," "she," "it," "they," and "one").

Pronouns Identified by Their Person

Using the image above, pretend that you're the man in the center; your mind is his mind, and his subjective point of view is yours: you experience and say everything he does. Yours, then, is the primary "mask" of this drama: you're the first person (the "I"). As the mind at the center of the picture, you're looking out through his eyes and you confide in the woman at left about all you observe going on in the far right of the image. That 2nd perspective, the woman, is necessary in order to communicate what's on your mind about the 3rd perspective, all that other stuff. What would you typically say to her in that moment? Answer: “Hey, I want to tell you something about them over there." Granted, you may not always keep eye contact with her or refer to her by name as you continue articulating your thoughts about what's happening in the corner, but that doesn't keep you from articulating your thoughts. You have a point of view to express. This helps to illustrate the concept of "perspective" in pronouns as “Observer,” “Audience,' and “Topic”:

  • 1st Person: Observer. The primary perspective is always that of the "I" or "we" point of view; the person(s) speaking or writing.
  • 2nd Person: Audience. The secondary perspective is always of the "you"—the individual(s) to whom the "I" or “we” is speaking or writing; the person(s) addressed.
  • 3rd Person: Topic. The remaining perspective is always of the “he,” “she,” “it,” “they” or "one"—anyone or anything else not included in that Observer / Audience relationship; a "subject" about which the "I" communicates to the "you"; the person(s), thing(s) or subject(s) referenced.
Example:
I will remind you next time not to invite them to our party.
Hey, I want to tell you about them over there.
Pronouns Are Identified By Their Case

Using a pronoun is a case of substitution. The word "case," then, has the same meaning as in the common expression, "Just in case . . ."; it refers to a set of circumstances or a situation. The circumstances of how a pronoun is used in a sentence determine its case. In most "cases," a pronoun serves either as subject or as object (of a verb or preposition); however, other cases provide more complex substitutions and relationships with antecedents.

Many students neglect to look at the issue of case in their native languages until they study a foreign language. Understanding the differences among languages often comes down to reviewing how different cases are identified by word endings. English rarely uses different word endings, so selecting pronouns appropriate for the case genuinely demands an understanding of the grammar. However, since pronouns substitute for nouns, it is helpful to note first (and memorize) how nouns can fall into four different cases:

SUBJECTIVE
in the role of the subject (a. k. a. nominative; predicate nominative after a linking verb)

"Cabbage stinks."

"Swing is a style of dance." ("style" is the predicate nominative)

ACCUSATIVE
in the role of the direct object of a transitive verb or a preposition*

“Derek always wears strong aftershave."

"The chef made a souffle for our guests."

DATIVE
in the role of an indirect object (often implying the preposition "to" or "for"); factitive and certain transitive verbs create direct and indirect objects

"Derek's strong aftershave gave me a headache."

"The chef made our guests a souffle."

GENITIVE
the possessive relationship; indicating belonging (marked by an apostrophe or preposition "of")

"Mary Ann grasped the broom's handle."

"The handle of the broom had broken."

Prepositions create more complex cases in English—the locative (movement from), ablative (indicating an addressee), and instrumental (indicating an object used to perform or accomplish an action)—but these do not require any special change of pronoun: they all take the same "object" case.

Last Updated: 02/27/2017
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