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Pronouns

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  • A pronoun substitutes for an implied noun or an antecedent—that is, a nounnoun phrase, clause, or other pronoun that has come before. Pronouns have two main purposes.

    1.  They reduce repetition—for example:

    Friends of Susan Powell told the Salt Lake Tribune she was afraid her husband Joshua Powell would kidnap her sons if she divorced him. [Examiner]

    This is more graceful than the alternative,

    Friends of Susan Powell told the Salt Lake Tribune Susan Powell was afraid Susan Powell’s husband Joshua Powell would kidnap Susan Powell’s sons if Susan Powell divorced Joshua Powell.

    2.  Pronouns can stand in for implied nouns. Here, the “she” and “he” in the second sentence recall nouns introduced in the first sentence:

    Betty Emmerson of Yakima has known Broderson since his youth. She said he’s grown into a wonderful and caring man. [Yakima Herald-Republic (article now offline)]

    In other cases, the implied noun may be entirely absent—for example:

    After a bumper set of encores and nearly 40 songs, McCartney sadly has to go. It really doesn’t get any better than this. [Independent.ie]

    The it in the second sentence doesn’t recall a noun from earlier, but we know the author means something like, “[The concert-going experience] doesn’t get any better than this.”

    Antecedents

    An antecedent is the word, clause, or phrase that a pronoun refers to.

    In many cases, an antecedent is a noun that comes soon before the pronoun, either earlier in the same sentence or in the preceding sentence—for example:

    The problem in Central Falls, as it was at my high school, Central, is poverty. [Washington Post]

    Here, the antecedent of the pronoun it is poverty.

    Sometimes, the antecedent is more than a single word, and it may even come after its pronoun. Both are true of the it in this sentence:

    Now, if it’s not too much trouble, have a go at that pesky 10-year playoff drought, OK?

    Here, the antecedent of it is have a go at that pesky 10-year playoff drought.

    And sometimes the antecedent is unspoken:

    You know what they say about March — comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb. [LA Times]

    In this sentence, the pronoun they refers to people in general, or at least to an unnamed group of people who say this thing about March.

    Pronoun placement

    In general, a pronoun should follow the word it refers to. When a pronoun precedes its antecedent in a sentence, it leaves the pronoun’s referent up in the air for a moment, which can be disconcerting for the reader. However, there are exceptions in which using a pronoun first can work.

    Examples

    For example, these sentences risk causing confusion by placing the pronoun before the noun it refers to:

    [1] Whenever they are near the water, children need to wear life preservers.

    [2] When they don’t have extra money, most of the people surveyed say they rely on credit cards.

    [3] Even if his life depended on it, Indian leader Gandhi would not compromise his people’s rights.

    Here are possible fixes (although there are a few options in each case):

    [1] Whenever children are near the water, they need to wear life preservers.

    [2] Most of the people surveyed say they rely on credit cards when they don’t have extra money.

    [3] Indian leader Gandhi would not compromise his people’s rights even if his life depended on it.

    Exceptions occur where a possessive pronoun is part of an adverbial phrase, usually involving like, that immediately precedes the noun it modifies—for example:

    Like his parents, Jeff considered a penny saved a penny earned.

    Like their relatives in the Dominican Republic, New York Dominicans value family.

    Like her husband, Jennifer prefers staying in on Sundays.

    Categories of pronouns

    Personal pronouns

    Personal pronouns are pronouns that stand in for previously named or implied people, things, or groups.  All personal pronouns in English are listed below.

    Singular pronouns:

    NominativeObjectivePossessive
    First personImemy, mine
    Second personyouyouyour, yours
    Third personhe, she, ithim, her, ithis, her, hers, its

    Plural pronouns:

    NominativeObjectivePossessive
    First personweusour, ours
    Second personyouyouyour, yours
    Third persontheythemtheir, theirs

    There are a few guidelines for personal pronouns:

    1. If the pronoun is the subject of a sentence or clause, it is in the nominative case—for example,

    went to school, and she went to work.

    2. If the pronoun is the object of a verb, it must be in the objective form:

    She asked me a question.

    3. Pronouns that are objects of prepositions are always in the objective case:

    They don’t care about her or me.

    4. When a pronoun is the subject of an infinitive verb, it’s always in the objective case:

    We shouted for them to play another tune.

    Possessive pronouns

    The possessive pronouns in English are hisheritsmyourtheir, and your. They’re usually used as adjectives that qualify nouns—for example, the pronouns in my windowyour fish, and its engine.

    Independent possessive pronouns

    Each possessive pronoun has a corresponding independent possessive pronoun—i.e., hishersitsmineourstheirs, and yours. None takes an apostrophe. They function as nouns, either with antecedents (e.g., That coffee is yours.) or without them (e.g., Put your boots where mine are.)

    Double possessives

    When an independent possessive pronoun follows the preposition of, a double possessive is formed. Although it may seem logical to use, for example, this chair of me instead of this chair of mine, the latter sounds more natural and is standard in English.

    Reflexive pronouns

    A reflexive pronoun is a pronoun that follows its antecedent within the same clause. The main ones in English are himselfherselfoneselfmyselfyourself, itselfourselvesyourselves, and themselves. A reflexive pronoun is usually the object of an action a thing or person performs upon itself, himself, or herself.

    Consider this example::

    The narrator of The Canterbury Tales brings himself down to the level of both the reader and the characters he represents. [Masterworks of British Literature]

    Here, the subject of the sentence (The narrator of The Canterbury Tales) performs an action (the verb brings) upon himself. The reflexive pronoun himself is the direct object of the action.

    Two more examples:

    As I listened, I asked myself: what is so good about this piece? [Karen Finneyfrock’s Blog]

    They do not perceive themselves as climbers. [Chicago Tribune]

    Intensive pronouns

    Intensive pronouns are pronouns that give emphasis to their antecedents. They take the same form as reflexive pronouns—i.e., himselfherselfmyself, etc.—but they function differently. Reflexive pronouns usually act as objects of reflexive verbs, while intensive pronouns merely give emphasis.

    Consider this example:

    In the end, the controversy surrounding posthumous publication will endure as long as the publications themselves. [Walrus Magazine]

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    Here, themselves is not an object of a verb. It gives emphasis to the noun publications.

    Two more examples:

    President Morales’ press secretary Ivà¡n Canelas, who was himself a journalist, clarified … [Bolivia Weekly]

    Sarkozy called the current crisis a “crisis of globalization itself,” urging broad coordination of regulation and accounting rules. [Harvard Law blog]

    Demonstrative pronouns

    A demonstrative pronoun points directly to an antecedent that is obvious or immediately apparent. In English, the most common ones are thisthatthose, and these. This and these refer to objects that are close by, while that and those refer to things that are comparatively further away.

    Like most pronouns, demonstrative pronouns function exactly like nouns and can serve as subjects or predicate objects—for example:

    This is my cat.

    I got that for my birthday.

    Demonstrative pronouns are deictic words, meaning that they cannot be understood without contextual information. Imagine if a man you’d never met were to walk up to you and say, “That was funny, wasn’t it?” You’d probably think he either was crazy or had mistaken you for someone else.

    Determiners vs. pronouns

    Not all instances of thisthatthose, and these qualify as demonstrative pronouns; some are technically classified as determiners or adjectives (depending on whom you ask). In case this ever comes up, be aware that demonstrative determiners/adjectives modify nouns—for example:

    This cat is sleeping.

    I can’t stand that show.

    And a demonstrative pronoun stands on its own without modifying a noun:

    These are slippery.

    I don’t like that.

    The words yon and yonder once functioned as relatively rare demonstrative pronouns, but they’re almost never used anymore.

    Indefinite pronouns

    An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun whose referent is unspecified—for example:

    Someone sent me a letter.

    Nobody wants to buy this book.

    When you go to Georgia, you don’t expect to see snow on the ground.

    I’ve never liked depending on others.

    Each of these italicized pronouns refers either to an unspecified person or group (someoneyouothers) or to an absence of people or things (nobody). Hence the indefinite (i.e., not defined) label.

    List of indefinite pronouns

    These words may be used as indefinite pronouns:

    all**
    another
    any**
    anybody
    anyone
    anything
    both*
    each
    either
    enough
    everybody
    everyone
    everything
    few*
    less
    little
    many*
    more**
    most**
    much
    neither
    nobody
    no one
    nothing
    none**
    one
    oneself
    other
    others*
    several*
    some**
    somebody
    someone
    such**
    they*

    In the above list, the asterisked indefinite pronouns are always plural (e.g., they are), and the double-asterisked ones are sometimes plural and sometimes singular (e.g., some issome are). Outside these exceptions, indefinite pronouns are generally treated as singular (e.g., nobody iseverybody is instead of nobody areeverybody are), even when a pronoun’s referent is treated as plural later in the same sentence—for example:

    Everyone was sitting, but they weren’t eating.

    Interrogative pronouns

    An interrogative pronoun is a pronoun that asks a question. The three interrogative pronouns in English are whowhat, and which. Their corresponding non-question forms are relative pronouns.

    Who

    Who is the only interrogative pronoun that changes inflection for case: Who is nominative, whom is objective, and whose is possessive.

    In the nominative case, who can be used as the subject of a sentence (Who sent these flowers?) or as a predicate nominative following a verb (The caller was who?).

    In the objective case, whom is used as the object of a verb (Whom will you ask?) or as the object of a preposition (Those flowers are for whom?)

    Who vs. which

    When referring to a person, who is usually most appropriate, but there are cases where which is best. Who is used when its referent is general and not confined to a very specific group of individuals—for example:

    Who is the best athlete in the world?

    Who is still appropriate when the pool of possible referents is narrowed:

    Who is the best professional golfer?

    When the referent is named directly by the interrogative pronoun, which is usually best:

    Which professional golfer is the best?

    Which of these professional golfers is best?

    And when the pronoun refers to a group of individuals who are immediately apparent, which is often used, although who works as well:

    Of the golfers in the tournament, which is the best?

    Of the golfers in the tournament, who is the best?

    What refers to things rather than people, and similar rules apply when choosing between what and which.

    Relative pronouns

    A relative pronoun introduces a relative clause (i.e., a dependent clause that modifies a noun or noun phrase). In English, the main relative pronouns are whowhichwhat, and that.For example, the relative pronoun (bold) in each of these sentences introduces a relative clause (underlined):

    The man who came over had a funny smell.

    The house, which he had built with his own hands, was yellow.

    This is the porch that we used to sit on.

    Who refers to people. Which refers to things or animals. What refers to things but not animals. That may refer to things or people (although there is disagreement on this in English grammar circles).

    Relative pronoun placement

    Relative pronouns usually come immediately after their antecedents—for example, She handed me the book, which she had gotten in Paris. Here, the relative pronoun which comes immediately after its antecedent, book. This rule can be broken in some cases, but things can get a little confusing when the pronoun gets too far from its antecedent. For example, in the sentence, She handed me the book she’d gotten in Paris, which she said was riveting, there is confusion about whether which applies to book or Paris.

    Relative pronouns sometimes refer to phrases or clauses. For example, this which refers to the action described in the sentence‘s main clause:

    The ageless Mariano Rivera retired the final three Mets, which extended his hitless streak to 22 batters in a row … [ESPN]

    Possessive relative pronouns

    Whose is the possessive form of both who and which, even when referring to inanimate things—for example:

    The Johannesburg magistrates’ court is the sort of unloved municipal building whose corridors smell of damp and bureaucracy … [The Guardian]

    The phrases of whatof whichof whom, and of that can also be used to form possessives, sometimes with clunky results—for example:

    The baby, the mother of whom was sleeping, would not stop crying.

    Such sentences can usually be reworded:

    The baby whose mother was sleeping would not stop crying.

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    Comments

    1. Extraneous pronoun?
      I just came across the following sentence in Jenny Turner’s article on David Foster Wallace (“Illuminating, horrible etc,” London Review of Books, April 2011): “When I started reading Wallace, it was this directness that hit me hardest, this effort to speak openly and straightforwardly about things so obvious and so embarrassing that most of us, most of the time, just
      ignore them.” The object of the verb “ignore” is “things,” so what’s the reason for including the “them” after “ignore”? Is this an extraneous pronoun? Does it have to do with the intervening modifications between the object and the verb? or the way these modifications are structured? Thank you!

      • Marcos Gutiérrez Martínez says:

        The expresión “so obvious that”, which is modifying “things”, needs to be fallowed by “one subject and a verb”, and, if the verb es transitive, it needs a direct object, which can be “the things” previously mentioned or other object. I think the sentence is correctly structured.

      • reemer9997 says:

        The distance between the verb and its object makes this sentence difficult. So if some of it was removed without altering any of the modifications we get this:
        …things so obvious that most of us just ignore them.
        It could work both with and without ‘them’, but the variants are not interchangeable- it depends on which part of the sentence is being emphasised. If there is emphasis on the fact that the things are obvious, then it does require ‘them’. However, if the emphasis is on the fact that the things are being ignored then it would be fine without the pronoun at the end.

    2. Jan McNally says:

      Our local news personalities frequently use a noun followed by a pronoun such as the robber, he fled the scene. Is there a name for this ridiculous redundancy?

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