Is a pronoun a noun?
The question of whether pronouns are a sub-class of nouns or a word class of their own is one that is still being debated. Because the issue is not resolved, I will not give a definite answer to this question here, but will rather give the arguments that are used to support either side of the debate.
Those who feel that pronouns are their own word class argue that:
1) Pronouns can be altered to indicate person, but common nouns cannot.
When using proper nouns, there is only one way to denote one thing. That is, one can only denote a cat by using the word cat. When pronouns are used, there are several ways to express something; there are several words that can be used to say a single person (I, you, she, one, etc.). Common nouns do not act this way.
2) Common nouns take plural inflections, but pronouns do not.
For example, to talk about more than one cat, a writer would use the inflectional plural form of cat: cats. Pronouns are not made plural by inflection. For example, I is not made plural by becoming Is, but rather by completely changing the word I to we. Common nouns do not do this.
3) Pronouns change case depending on whether they are in an object position or a subject position within a phrase, but common nouns do not.
The word cat, for example, does not change if it is moved from subject position to object position:
“The cat was given food.” / “Food was given to the cat.”
Pronouns do change when moved from subject position to object position.
“I was given food.” / “Food was given to me.”
4) Unlike common nouns which can be preceded by adjectives and other words almost without limit, pronouns cannot be preceded by other words in such a manner.
We will again use the common noun cat to demonstrate:
“The three large, fat, black, happy cats were asleep.”
This cannot be done with pronouns:
“The three large, fat, black, happy they were asleep,” is ungrammatical. Even the
simplified phrase, “The they were asleep,” doesn’t work.
The main counterargument against pronouns being their own word class is that, while pronouns cannot be manipulated in the same ways that common nouns can, they act just like common nouns in sentences. Because they can replace nouns in any given phrase, they can head noun phrases.
This single argument for pronouns being a kind of noun holds much more weight than any of those given for pronouns being their own part of speech. Based on my own personal survey of literature and online discussions, the continuing trend is that an increasing number of grammarians are opining that pronouns are a type of noun.
The eight subsets of pronouns
1) Personal pronouns
A personal pronoun stands in the place of — and grammatically acts the same as — a noun phrase. The words I, me, my, mine, you, your, yours, he, him, his, she, her, hers, it, its, one, one’s, we, us, our, ours, they, them, their, and theirs are the personal pronouns of the English language.1
A personal pronoun can take a nominative case when it is the subject of a clause, such as in the phrase, “He was hungry.” A personal pronoun can also take an accusative case when serving as an object, as in the phrase, “I like him.” Additionally, a personal pronoun can take a genitive (possessive) case, as in “This gift is his.”
The noun for which a personal pronoun stands usually comes before the personal pronoun (in which case the noun is called an antecedent) An example of a pronoun following an antecedent would be:
“Kelsey and Harold had taken several wrong turns and now they were missing.” The noun phrase Kelsey and Harold is represented by the personal pronoun they.
Notice how it is somewhat more confusing to read:
“They had taken several wrong turns and now Kelsey and Harold were missing.”
It is more useful for the reader to know to whom a pronoun refers before reading it.
2) Reflexive pronouns
A reflexive pronoun is used when a pronoun exists in the same clause as the noun to which it refers. Reflexive pronouns end in -self or -selves. Every personal pronoun has a reflexive form:
I / myself
you / yourself / yourselves
he / himself
she / herself
it / itself
one / oneself
they / themselves
To see how reflexive pronouns operate, let’s rephrase the example we used when discussing personal pronouns:
“Kelsey and Harold had gotten themselves lost.”
Because the pronoun exists within the same clause as the noun phrase Kelsey and Harold, themselves — the reflexive form of the pronoun they — is used. Failing to use the reflexive form of the pronoun results in:
“Kelsey and Harold had gotten them lost.”
While this sentence is grammatical, it does not mean the same thing as the sentence which uses themselves. When themselves is used, it means that Kelsey and Harold gotten only Kelsey and Harold lost. The sentence which uses them reads as though Harold and Kelsey had gotten lost a group of people which included people other than just Kelsey and Harold.
When the reflexive form of a pronoun is used when a personal pronoun should be used — that is, when a pronoun is placed in a clause separate from the clause which contains its referent noun — the result is in an ungrammatical sentence. Take a look at this example, which is copied from above, but with the reflexive themselves used instead of they:
“Kelsey and Harold had taken several wrong turns and now themselves were missing.”
3) Reciprocal pronouns
Reciprocal pronouns are short phrases which act similarly to reflexive pronouns. However, when a reciprocal pronoun is used, it indicates that whatever action is described in a phrase is being carried out simultaneously by two or more individuals and that these individuals experience the consequences of the action equally.
There are only two reciprocal pronouns in the English language: one another (when referring to two individuals) and each other (when referring to more than two individuals).
Let’s look at two simple examples to see how reciprocal pronouns act compared to reflexive pronouns:
Reflexive pronoun: “Jackie and Charles bought dinner for themselves.”
Reciprocal pronoun: “Jackie and Charles bought dinner for one another.”
The two sentences mean almost the same thing, but the type of pronoun used alters the meaning slightly. In the first sentence, where a reflexive pronoun has been used, the sentence tells the reader that Jackie and Charles pooled their own money in some fashion to buy their dinner. The second sentence, which uses a reciprocal pronoun, tells the reader that Jackie paid for Charles’s dinner and Charles paid for Jackie’s dinner.
4) Relative pronouns
A relative pronoun is positioned at the beginning of a relative clause — a clause that gives additional information about a noun. Commonly-used relative pronouns are: that, who, whom, whose, and which.
The following sentence includes a relative pronoun within a relative (bracketed) clause:
“The old man [who always comes in here on Thursdays] did not order his usual drink today.”
5) Free relative pronouns
A free relative pronoun is a relative pronoun which is not linked to a noun given in the sentence. Who, whom, whoever, whomever, whatever, are common free relative pronouns.
In the example above, which exemplified a relative pronoun, it is easy to see that the pronoun who refers specifically to the old man who is being talked about. In the following example, which uses a free relative pronoun, there is no word in the sentence to which whatever specifically refers:
“I like being able to do whatever I want.”
Thus, whatever is a free relative pronoun in this sentence.
6) Interrogative pronouns
An interrogative pronoun is placed at the beginning of an interrogative clause — a clause which asks a question. Who, whom, whose, what, and which can all be used as interrogative pronouns.
Interrogative pronouns are used very similarly to relative pronouns. The difference between these two pronoun types is that interrogative pronouns are used to ask a question whereas relative pronouns are used to give additional information about something. The relative clause in the example used earlier becomes an interrogative clause simply by being lifted from the sentence:
Who as a relative pronoun: “The old man [who always comes in here on Thursdays] did not order his usual drink today.”
Who as an interrogative pronoun: “Who always comes in here on Thursdays?”
7) Demonstrative pronouns
Demonstrative pronouns point to a specific thing or specific set of things, are often followed by a form of the verb be, and are never immediately followed by a noun (if this were the case, the word would not be a pronoun, but a determinative.)
There are four words in the English language which can be demonstrative pronouns: this, that, these, and those. The following examples will illustrate when these words are pronouns, and when they are not:
In the phrase, “This is a perfect day,” this is a pronoun because it is the subject.
A demonstrative pronoun can also be placed in an object position within a phrase, as in “I can’t handle this.”
In the phrase, “This day is perfect,” this is not a pronoun because it is directly followed by the noun day. The word day is the subject; the word this simply determines that it is the current day that is being discussed. For similar reasons, this is not a pronoun in the phrase, “I can’t handle this situation.”
8) Indefinite pronouns
Indefinite pronouns are said to be indefinite because they do not refer to a specific person, thing, or set of people or things that can be identified by the reader. As with demonstrative pronouns, indefinite pronouns cannot be immediately followed by a noun as this takes these words out of the subject or object position; when followed by a noun these words are determinatives.
Some common indefinite pronouns are: another, few, many, either, each, and enough.
To illustrate, the word few is an indefinite pronoun in the phrase, “Few have gotten this far.” Note how it is not possible for us to define exactly to what or whom the word few is referring.
If this sentence is rephrased as “Few people have gotten this far,” the word few is no longer the subject of the phrase. People is the subject, and the word few describes the relative amount of people being discussed and is therefore a determinative.
This concludes the discussion on pronouns. I hope you have found this article informative, and I hope it has helped you learn more about this sometimes-confusing group of words. The next article in this series will discuss verbs.
Jake Magnum, author of the Magnum Proofreading Blog, is dedicated to helping writers perfect their work. In addition to giving free advice on his blog, Jake helps writers by offering very affordable proofreading services at magnumproofreading.com.
1The dependent possessive forms of these pronouns (my, your, its, etc.) are sometimes classified as determiner instead of as pronouns because they cannot replace a noun — they need to precede a noun to make sense. However, a defining characteristic of determiner is that they can never take a genitive (possessive) case. Therefore, words such as my are better defined as a special kind of pronoun than as a determiner.