5 Pronoun Cases and Types

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 make up 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.

Practice

Identify the antecedents and pronouns in the following examples:

  1. Itzel and Camila were the top ranking doubles team at OSU. They hadn’t been defeated all year.
  2. People asked Jorge to review their papers so often that he started a small editing business.
  3. Henry called his parents every week.

[reveal-answer q=”554891″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer]
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  1. Itzel and Camila is the antecedent for the pronoun They.
  2. There are two pronoun/antecedent pairs in this sentence. People is the antecedent for their, and Jorge is the antecedent for he.
  3. Henry is the antecedent for his.

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

Personal Pronouns

an icon showing three peopleThe following sentences give examples of personal pronouns used with antecedents:

  • That man looks as if he needs a new coat. (the noun phrase that man is the antecedent of he)
  • Kat arrived yesterday. I met her at the station. (Kat is the antecedent of her)
  • When they saw us, the lions began roaring (the lions is the antecedent of they)
  • Adam and I were hoping no one would find us. (Adam and I is the antecedent of us)
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)
  • We were teasing each other. (we is the antecedent of each other)

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 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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Practice

Read at the following sentences. Should the reflexive pronoun be used? Why or why not?

  1. Aisha let (her / herself) in when she arrived.
  2. Feel free to let (you / yourself) in when you get here!
  3. Alex asked Jada if she would let (him / himself) in when (she / herself) arrived.

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[reveal-answer q=”653330″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer]
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  1. Aisha let herself in when she arrived.
    • Aisha is the subject and object of the sentence.
  2. Feel free to let yourself in when you get here!
    • You is the implied subject of the sentence, so the reflexive yourself is appropriate as the object of the sentence.
  3. Alex asked Jada if she would let him in when she arrived.
    • While Alex is the subject of the sentence, Alex is not the subject of the dependent clause that him appears in (if she would let him in). In this clause, she is the subject, so the reflexive pronoun cannot be used here.
    • She is the subject of the clause “when she arrived.” Since it’s a subject, the reflexive cannot be used.

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

Person refers to the relationship that an author has with the text that he or she writes, and with the reader of that text. English has three persons (first, second, and third):

  • First-person is the speaker or writer him- or herself. The first person is personal (I, we, etc.)
  • Second-person is the person who is being directly addressed. The speaker or author is saying this is about you, the listener or reader.
  • Third-person is the most common person used in academic writing. The author is saying this is about other people. In the third person singular there are distinct pronoun forms for male, female, and neutral gender.

There are two numbers: singular and plural. As we learned in nouns, singular words refer to only one a thing while plural words refer to more than one of a thing (I stood alone while they walked together).

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:

Person Number Subject Object Possessive
First Singular I me my mine
Plural we us our ours
Second Singular you you your yours
Plural you you your yours
Third Singular he him his his
she her her hers
it it its its
Plural they them their theirs

Practice

In each sentence, fill in the blank with the correct pronoun. Identify why you selected the pronoun you did:

  1. André told me that it was ___ box of cereal, but I couldn’t remember having bought ___.
  2. Amelia and Ajani still haven’t arrived. I should make sure ___ texted ___.
  3. You shouldn’t be so worried about what other people think. The only person ___ need to please is ___.
  4. George Washington was the first president of the United States. ___ set the standard of only serving two terms of office. However, ___ wasn’t illegal to serve over two terms until 1951.

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[reveal-answer q=”436221″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer]
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  1. The context of the sentence gives hints that André thinks the box of cereal belongs to the speaker of the sentence. The correct sentence would be “André told me that it was my box of cereal, but I couldn’t remember having bought it.”
    • My is a possessive, singular, first-person pronoun. It is followed by the noun box of cereal, so it appears in its adjective form, rather than as mine.
    • It is a subject case, singular, neutral third-person pronoun.
  2. There are two sentence that make sense here: “Amelia and Ajani still haven’t arrived. I should make sure I texted them,” or “Amelia and Ajani still haven’t arrived. I should make sure they texted me.” The correct sentence depends on who did (or didn’t do) the texting.
    • I is a subject case, singular, first-person pronoun.
    • They is a subject case, plural, third-person pronoun.
    • Them is a object case, plural, third-person pronoun.
    • Me is a object case, singular, first-person pronoun.
  3. You shouldn’t be so worried about what other people think. The only person you need to please is you.
    • You is an subject case, singular, second-person pronoun.
    • You is an object case, singular, second-person pronoun. Yourself would also be ok here, since the subject and object of the sentence are the same.
  4. George Washington was the first president of the United States. He set the standard of only serving two terms of office. However, it wasn’t illegal to serve over two terms until 1951.
    • He is a subject case, singular, masculine third-person pronoun.
    • It is a subject case, singular, neutral third-person pronoun.

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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.

Icon of two location symbols connected by dotted lineThe 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 actually have to read all of this?
    • The speaker is indicating a text that is close to her, by using “this.”
  • 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. When this happens, they act as a kind of adjective instead of as a pronoun.

  • Do I actually 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 concept of the puppy cam being taken down. In the second example, the antecedent for it in this sentence is the experience of watching the panda. That antecedent isn’t explicitly stated in the sentence, but comes through in the intention and meaning of the speaker.

Practice

In the following sentences, determine if this, that, these, or those should be used.

  1. Lara looked at her meal in front of her. “____ looks great!” she said.
  2. Tyesha watched the ’67 Mustang drive down the street. “What I wouldn’t give for one of ____.”
  3. “What do you think of ____?” Ashley asked, showing me the three paint samples she had picked out.

[reveal-answer q=”727295″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer]
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  1. Lara looked at her meal in front of her. “This looks great!” she said.
    • The meal is right in front of Lara, and there is only one meal. This is the correct pronoun.
  2. Tyesha watched the ’67 Mustang drive down the street. “What I wouldn’t give for one of those.”
    • The Mustang is far away (and getting further away as it drives off). The phrase “one of ____” requires a plural word in the blank. Those is the correct pronoun. A singular version of the sentence would be something like “What I wouldn’t give to own that.” That is the correct pronoun for singular things that are far away.
  3. “What do you think of these?” Ashley asked, showing me the three paint samples she had picked out.
    • The paint samples are in immediate focus (whether Ashley is holding them or looking at them online), and there are three of them. These is the correct pronoun.

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Indefinite Pronouns

dotted 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 a couple of different ways:

  • They can refer to members of a group separately rather than collectively. (To each his or her own.)
  • They can indicate the non-existence of people or things. (Nobody thinks that.)
  • They can refer to a person, but are not specific as to first, second or third person in the way that the personal pronouns are. (One does not clean one’s own windows.)

Please note that all of these pronouns are singular. 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 sometimes used without antecedents—this applies to special uses such as dummy pronouns and generic they, as well as cases where the referent is implied by the context.

  • You know what they say.
  • It’s a nice day today.

Practice

Identify the indefinite pronouns in the following sentences. Is the best indefinite used, or is there another indefinite that would fit better?

  1. Everyone should take the time to critically think about what he or she wants out of life.
  2. If I had to choose between singing in public and swimming with leeches, I would choose neither.
  3. Yasmin knew everything was wrong, but she couldn’t figure out what.
  4. If nobody else enrolls in this class, it will be cancelled this semester.

[reveal-answer q=”565632″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer]
[hidden-answer a=”565632″]

  1. Everyone is the indefinite pronoun. He or she is a pronoun with the antecedent everyone.
  2. The indefinite pronoun neither is used in this sentence. It is likely being used correctly, indicating that the speaker does not want to complete the actions stated earlier in the sentence. However, if the speaker thought that both singing in public and swimming with leeches were fun, the indefinite pronoun either would be the appropriate word to use.
  3. The indefinite pronoun everything is used in this sentence. However, based on the rest of the sentence, it doesn’t quite fit. If everything is wrong, you wouldn’t need to figure out exactly what’s happening. The indefinite pronoun something would fit better here.
    • Yasmin knew something was wrong, but she couldn’t figure out what.

    If everything is, in fact, wrong, perhaps the word what needs to be changed.

    • Yasmin knew everything was wrong, but she couldn’t figure out how it had happened.
    • Yasmin knew everything was wrong, but she couldn’t figure out why.
  4. The indefinite pronoun nobody else is used in this sentence. If there are already some students enrolled in the class, then nobody else is being used correctly. If there aren’t any students in the course, then nobody should be used instead.

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Singular They

As we’ve just seen, indefinite pronouns demand singular pronouns, like in “To each his or her own.” However, in informal speech, you’ll often hear things like “To each their own” or “Someone is singing in the hallway. If they haven’t stopped in five minutes, I’m going to have to take drastic measures.” If you think about your own speech, it’s very likely that you use they as a singular pronoun for someone whose gender you don’t know.

So why do people use they this way, even though it’s a plural? It likely stems from the clunkiness of the phrase “he or she.” It is also possible that they is following the same evolution as the word you. In Early Modern English, you was used as either a plural, second-person pronoun or as a polite form for the more common, singular thee. However, you eventually overtook almost all of the second-person pronouns, both singular and plural.

While this use of the singular they is still not “officially” correct—and you definitely shouldn’t use this in your English papers—it’s interesting to watch English change before our very eyes.

Relative Pronouns

There are five relative pronouns in English: whowhomwhose, that, and which. These pronouns are used to connect different clauses together. 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. Two of the biggest confusions with these pronouns are that vs. which and who vs. whom. The two following videos help with these:

That vs. Which

Who vs. Whom

Practice

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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[reveal-answer q=”35641″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer]
[hidden-answer a=”35641″]There are three relative pronouns in this passage:

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.

Whom is incorrect; the object case is not needed here. The sentence should start with “Katerina, who had taken biology once already. . . .” Which is used correctly. Which is appropriate to use with the noun animals, and the clause is set off with commas. That is used correctly. It connects knew with what she knew.

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English Composition I by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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