Parts of Speech
Pronouns

Pronoun

A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun.

 John was told to obey his curfew, but he decided to stay out late and accept his punishment.

The word his replaces the word John's and he replaces the word John, so he and his are pronouns.

Using the pronouns is preferable to the alternative sentence below.

 John was told to obey John's curfew, but John decided to stay out late and accept John's punishment.

Cases of personal pronouns

CaseSingularPlural
Subjective I, you, he, she, it we, you, they
Objective me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them
Possessive my, your, his, her, its our, your, their

Notes on the above table:
1. The pronoun you can be both singular and plural.
2. The pronouns you and it do not change form for the subjective and the objective cases.

Personal pronouns also change their case, or form, to show their function.

There are three cases for pronouns:

  • subjective (or nominative)
  • objective
  • possessive

The pronoun will change according to its case in the sentence.

Subjective case

A pronoun that is used as the subject of a verb requires the subjective case.

 He and I went to the movie last night.
 Him and I went to the movie last night.
 He and me went to the movie last night.

Because the pronouns he and I are used as the subject of the verb went, they require the subjective case.

Subjective case after a linking verb

A pronoun in the subjective case is required after a linking verb.

All forms of the verb to be, such as is, are, was, and were, are linking verbs.

 The captain of the basketball team is he.
 The captain of the basketball team is him.

Though the first sentence may sound wrong to you, the subjective case he is required after the linking verb is.

When you are in doubt, change the order of the sentence.

 He is the captain of the basketball team.
 Him is the captain of the basketball team.

Objective case

A pronoun that is used as the object of a verb or a preposition requires the objective case.

 The gifts were given to her for her birthday.

Because the pronoun her is the object of the preposition to, the objective case is required.

  Tom's grandfather patted him on the back to show his approval.

Because the pronoun him is the object of the verb patted, the objective case is required.

Compound subject or object

Students have greater difficulty in choosing the correct case of the pronoun when there is a compound subject or a compound object.

Compound subject: Betty and (I, me) went to the movie.

To help you decide the correct form of the pronoun, mentally eliminate one part of the compound subject, which is Betty and.

Now, would you say I went to the movie or Me went to the movie? The answer is obvious.

  Betty and I went to the movie.

Do the same for a compound object.

Compound object: Grandfather gave Betty and (I, me) a ride to the movie.

To help you decide the correct form of the pronoun, mentally eliminate one part of the compound object, which is Betty and.

Now, would you say Grandfather gave I a ride to the movie or Grandfather gave me a ride to the movie? The answer is obvious.

  Grandfather gave Betty and me a ride to the movie.

Possessive case

The possessive case of a pronoun is used to show ownership.

 Your book was placed in his knapsack by mistake.

Because the pronouns your and his are showing ownership, they use the possessive case.

The possessive form of a pronoun or a noun is used before a gerund, an ing form of a verb used as a noun.

 His driving was considered reckless by his peers.
 Bruce's driving was considered reckless by his peers.

Antecedent

A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number and gender.
The antecedent is the word or words to which a pronoun refers.

 The elderly man wrapped his sandwich in brown paper.
 The elderly men wrapped their sandwiches in brown paper.

Man is the antecedent of the pronoun his.
Men is the antecedent of the pronoun their.

A singular antecedent (dog) requires a singular pronoun (it, its).
A plural antecedent (dogs) requires a plural pronoun (they, them, their, theirs).
A masculine antecedent (boy) requires a masculine pronoun (he, him, his).
A feminine antecedent (girl) requires a feminine pronoun (she, her, hers).

Correlative conjunctions

Correlative conjunctions are conjunctions that are used in pairs, such as either...or, both...and and neither...nor.

 Neither Betty nor Mary would share her lunch with me.
 Both Betty and Mary wouldn't share their lunch with me.

If one antecedent is singular and the other antecedent is plural, you must make the pronoun agree with the closer one.

 Neither Tom nor the twins would share their lunch with me.
 Neither the twins nor Tom would share his lunch with me.

Pronouns after the word than

You also need to be careful of the pronoun that you use after than.

 Bill is taller than I.

This sentence really means Bill is taller than I am. The verb am is understood, though it is not stated.
However, we are so used to hearing Bill is taller than me that it sounds more natural than Bill is taller than I.
If you feel awkward using the correct sentence, then add the omitted verb so the sentence is Bill is taller than I am.
You would never say Bill is taller than me am.

Let's

Many students have difficulty when they have to use a pronoun after let's.
Should it be Let's you and I go to the movie or Let's you and me go to the movie?
Let's means let us. Us is the objective form of the pronoun we; therefore, the pronoun that comes after let's should be in the objective case.

 Let's you and me go to the movie.

Pronouns us and we

Students have a similar problem with us and we when they are used before a noun. Should it be we boys or us boys?

Let the case of the noun after the pronoun guide you.

If the noun is in the nominative case, use we.

 We boys are responsible for raising funds for the soccer team.

If the noun is in the objective case, use us.

 The responsibility for raising funds for the soccer team falls on us boys.

Other person first

Always place the name of the other person in front of your name, as a matter of courtesy.

 Tom and I went to the movie.
 I and Tom went to the movie.

Changing pronouns

Do not change pronouns in your speech or writing.

 When you do so much work, I need to take a break.

Why would I need to take a break if you are doing the work?

 When I do so much work, I need to take a break.
 When you do so much work, you need to take a break.

Demonstrative pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns are this, that, these, and those.
Note that these is the plural form of this, and those is the plural form of that.
Also note that this and that refer to people, animals, or things that are close, while that and those refer to people, animals, or things that are farther away.

Do not confuse demonstrative pronouns with demonstrative adjectives. Remember that an adjective describes a noun or pronoun while a pronoun refers to a noun.

This book should be used in the course.

This is a demonstrative adjective because it modifies the noun book.

This is the book that should be used in the course.

This is a demonstrative pronoun because it is the subject of the verb is.

Interrogative pronouns

Interrogative pronouns are used to ask questions. They are who? whom? whose? which? and what?

Who read the first chapter of the novel?
Whose book is that on the table?
Which of the two novels do you prefer?
What is the correct answer to the question?

Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns are words like anybody, anyone, anything, each, everybody, everyone, everything, nobody, somebody, and someone, which do not refer to a definite person or thing. Any pronoun that refers to an indefinite pronoun must be singular.

Everybody is responsible for his or her homework.
Anyone who doesn't do his or her homework will get a detention.

However, in many magazines and newspapers today you will see sentences in which the writer treats the indefinite pronoun as if it were plural.

 Anyone who sold their mutual funds during the recession made a bad investment decision.
 Being fired is devastating, especially for somebody who was otherwise good at their job.

 Anyone who sold his or her mutual funds during the recession made a bad investment decision.
 Being fired is devastating, especially for somebody who was otherwise good at his or her job.

In your writing be consistent with the masculine or feminine form of the pronoun that you use to refer to an indefinite pronoun.

Everyone does his homework.
Everyone does her homework.
Everyone does his or her homework.
Everyone does his/her homework.

Although each of these forms is correct, it is advisable to check with your instructor to determine which form she wants you to use in your assignments. Regardless of the form you eventually choose, you must be consistent with the use of that form throughout the assignment.

Reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns are formed by adding self or selves to other pronouns.

These are the correct forms of the reflexive pronouns.

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

These are the incorrect forms of the reflexive pronouns.

  hisself, ourself, theirself, theirselves

Reflexive pronouns are used mainly for emphasis.

 The student did the work himself.
 Tom himself is responsible for the costly mistake.

However, the reflexive pronoun can never be used as the subject of a verb.

 Jerry and myself took the car for a test drive.
 Jerry and I took the car for a test drive.

Pronoun-antecedent agreement

A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number and gender.

Using the wrong pronoun to agree with its antecedent is probably the most common error in writing today. You will see numerous examples in magazines and newspapers.

 Everyone can do their part to contribute to a strong economy.
 Everyone can do her part to contribute to a strong economy.

 If someone fell behind during the hike, the leader waited for them to catch up.
 If someone fell behind during the hike, the leader waited for him to catch up.

(For more information on this topic, see Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement.)

Relative Pronouns

The relative pronouns are who, which, and that.

These words are pronouns because they refer to a noun, but they are also subordinate conjunctions because they link a principal clause to a subordinate clause.

Use who to refer to people.

Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, spent much of his life in Nova Scotia.

Use which to refer to animals and things.

This is our dog, which sleeps on our bed at night.
This is my Rolex watch, which I purchased at Birks.

Use that to refer to people, animals, or things under certain conditions.

This is the man that stole my watch.
This is the dog that was lost for a week.
This is the watch that belonged to Dr. Grenfell.

In each of these sentences, we need the clause to identify the person, animal, or thing that we are referring to, so we use that instead of who or which.

Note that the relative pronouns in these sentences link one part of the sentence to the other part, so they are conjunctions. At the same time, however, they are also pronouns because they are the subjects of verbs.

Cases of relative pronouns

Of the three relative pronouns, only who changes its form according to the case.

Subjective caseObjective casePossessive case
Who Whom Whose

Subjective case: This is the man who visited us last week.
Who is subject of the verb visited, so it requires the subjective case.

Objective case: This is the man to whom we loaned our car.
Whom is object of the preposition to, so it requires the objective case.

Possessive case: Whose house is this?
Whose modifies the noun house, so it requires the possessive case.

Comma or no comma?

Should a relative clause be separated from the principal clause by a comma? The answer will depend on whether the relative clause is restrictive or non-restrictive.

A restrictive clause is one that is necessary to identify something in the principal clause.
A non-restrictive clause is one that is not necessary to identify something in the principal clause.

 This is the man who won the lottery last night.

Do we know which man we are referring to without the relative clause who won the lottery last night? The answer is no, so the relative clause is restrictive. We need it to identify man in the sentence. Therefore, it is not set off by a comma.

 This is our mayor, who won the lottery last night.

Do we know which man we are referring to without the relative clause who won the lottery last night? The answer is yes, so the relative clause is a non-restrictive clause. Therefore, it is set off by a comma.

Who, which, that

Students often have difficulty knowing which relative pronoun to use in certain sentences.

Usually, you use who to refer to people and which to refer to things and animals. However, there are exceptions to these rules.

The exception is caused by the use of that.

Use that to refer to people, animals, or things, if you need the information following that to identify the person, animal, or thing that you are talking about.

 Mother (who, which, that) was in the living room overheard our plans for the weekend.

We can eliminate which as a possible answer because we are dealing with people, while which deals with things or animals.

We know that it was Mother who overheard our plans for the weekend, so we do not need who was in the living room to identify her. Therefore, who was in the living room is a non-restrictive clause.

Because it is a non-restrictive clause, we use who instead that in the sentence. In addition, the clause who was in the living room should be set off by commas because it is non-restrictive.

 Mother, who was in the living room, overheard our plans for the weekend.

However, all choices are not that simple. Consider the sentence below and the choices.

 The barbecue (who, which, that) is on the deck needs a new propane tank.

We can eliminate who as a possible answer because we are dealing with a thing, while who deals with people.

The decision we now have to make is whether who or which is on the deck is a restrictive or non-restrictive clause. Do we need that clause to identify which barbecue needs a new propane tank?

If the speaker has only one barbecue, we do not need the clause to identify which one needs a new tank. However, if he has more than one barbecue, we need that clause.

A search of the context does not inform us of the correct choice. Either answer could be correct.

However, when an instructor is testing such a sentence, he will usually have a clue in the context to inform you whether the clause is restrictive or non-restrictive.

 The barbecue, (which, that) is on the deck, needs a new propane tank.

The commas inform us that the clause is non-restrictive; therefore which is the correct choice.

 The barbecue, which is on the deck, needs a new propane tank.

Here is another example for your consideration.

 You need to repair my car (who, which, that) is in the garage.

We can eliminate who as a possible answer because we are dealing with a thing, while who deals with people.

The decision we now have to make is whether which or that is in the garage is a restrictive or non-restrictive clause. Do we need that clause to identify which car needs to be repaired?

We cannot tell from the context how many cars the person has. However, when the instructor places a comma in the test item, we know that there is only one car. Therefore, the clause is non-restrictive.

 You need to repair my car, which is in the garage.

There is no doubt about the choice in the next sentence.

 Last night we watched The National (which, that) we did not find informative.

Since we have the name of the program that the speaker was watching, we do not need the subordinate clause (which, that) we did not find informative to identify the program. Therefore, the clause is non-restrictive, so which is the correct choice and the clause needs to be set off by a comma.

 Last night we watched The National, which we did not find informative.

Relative pronoun understood

Relative pronouns are sometimes understood but not stated.

 This was the best gift we could have given our parents.

One would think that the above sentence consists of two sentences:

  • This was the best gift.
  • We could have given our parents.

However, it consists of a principal clause This the best gift and a subordinate clause that we could have given our parents. The relative pronoun that is understood, though not stated.

Practice

Instructions: Identify the 20 pronouns in the following sentences.

  1. During the half marathon, John did his best to pace himself, as he thought, but he was not successful, even though everyone was cheering for him.
  2. He debated which of the two routes would give him the better chance of beating his opponent.
  3. Too late he realized that this was a good choice for his competitors but not for himself.
  4. Each did his best but only one runner could be the winner in this competitive sport, unfortunately.
  5. John soon realized that those with the most training and the greatest stamina would be the runners to pass him as they struggled toward the finish line.

Test your skill

Now that you have studied the rules of subject and verb agreement, it is time to test your knowledge of these rules. Click on the button to the right to take a test of 20 sentences in which you apply these rules.


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