What is a pronoun?

Here is the simple definition of a pronoun: a word that takes the place of a noun or refers to one. It has a simple job: to make our lives that little bit less repetitive.

Dave sat down at Dave’s desk and switched on Dave’s computer, then Dave went to get Dave a cup of coffee, carefully carrying the cup of coffee back to Dave’s desk so Dave didn’t spill the cup of coffee.

Pretty laborious stuff, isn’t it? Dave would need his coffee by the time he got to the end of that sentence. On the other hand, this version reads a lot more efficiently.

Dave sat down at his desk and switched on his computer, then he went to get himself a cup of coffee, carefully carrying it back to his desk so he didn’t spill it.

It’s not just about efficiency either, as pronouns also give sentences a more personal flavour. Tarzan love Jane is nice, but I love you really cuts to the juice.

Traditionally, it was regarded as another part of speech (like verbs, prepositions, nouns, etc.), but the pronoun fulfills so many different syntactic roles that this idea no longer holds much currency with linguists.

Types of pronoun

What is a pronoun? Well, there are many different types.

Personal pronouns are the pronouns we maybe think of first. They are not personal in that they refer to actual people, but are divided into the subjective case and objective case: the subjective case is where the subject performs the action of the verb (the he in he passed the ketchup), whereas in the objective case the pronoun receives the action (the her in she told her about the problem).

Possessive pronouns stand in place of a noun with a possessive adjective: for example, my coat becomes mine, or her car becomes hers.

Reflexive pronouns are used when the subject and object are the same word; for example, she washed herself or I told myself to calm down. Words like yourself, myself, etc. can also be used as intensive pronouns, when they place the emphasis on the identity of the subject or object: for example, he himself was a fine marksman or she decided to write the book herself.

Interrogative pronouns are typically used in questions, the w-pronouns (who, when, what, how, etc.), and they share some similarities with the relative pronouns like which, who, that and whose, which refer to the antecedents, the nouns that are being replaced. Both are contained in the following: Who (interrogative) bought the record? It was that Danish guy that (relative) is always looking for old school hip-hop.

Demonstrative pronouns are often accompanied by a jabbing finger (this, that, these, those) to make the noun clear in the absence of an antecedent, though they can work with one of them too.

On the other hand, the large group of indefinite pronouns (most, anyone, someone, several, none, etc.) do not refer to an antecedent at all, which grants them much of their rhetorical power, i.e. someone’s going to pay for this mess.