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In linguistics and grammar, a pronoun is a word that usually takes the place of a noun or noun phrase that was previously mentioned (such as "she", "it") or that refers to something or someone ("I", "me", "you").

Pronouns are often one of the basic parts of speech of the language. A pronoun is the part of speech that substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and designates persons or things asked for, previously specified, or understood from the context. The substituted noun is the antecedent of the pronoun.

For example, consider the sentence John gave the coat to Alice. All three nouns in the sentence can be replaced by pronouns to give: He gave it to her. If the coat, John and Alice have been previously mentioned, the listener can deduce what the pronouns he, it and her refer to and the understand the meaning of the sentence.


Distinctions made in pronouns

Pronouns usually show the basic distinctions of person and number (the most common system distinguishing between first, second and third person, and singular and plural number), but they may also feature other categories, such as gender (e. g. English he vs. she) and case (subject I vs. object me). These can of course vary a lot. While English only has two genders (feminine and masculine) and only distinguishes gender in the third person singular pronouns, Kinuvo , a language spoken in Tanzania, uses many grammatical genders to distinguish between humans, animals, body parts and so on, and has pronouns for each gender. The English dialect spoken in Dorset also does this to a certain extent, using "ee" for animate beings and "er" for inanimate.

In some languages, pronouns distinguish two kinds of plurals, inclusive and exclusive. For example, Cherokee has three second person plural pronouns, meaning "you and I", "another person and I" and "several other people and I", respectively.

While it is common to distinguish two numbers (singular and plural), some languages have more than two such distinctions. Fijian, for example, has a dual (two people), a small group plural (3 to 5 people), and a large group plural (more than 5 people). It also distinguishes between inclusive and exclusive.

Slavic languages have two different third person genitive pronouns (one non-reflexive, one reflexive). For example (in Serbian):

Ana je dala Mariji njenu knjigu. = "Ana gave her book to Maria." (non-reflexive, that is, Maria's book)
Ana je dala Mariji svoju knjigu. = "Ana gave her book to Maria." (reflexive, i. e. Ana's own book)

The pronoun may encode politeness and formality. Japanese has several pronouns for each grammatical person, to be used in different contexts according to the rank, social standing, age, etc. of the speaker and the hearer (as well as his/her gender). For example, young girls may refer to themselves as atashi while young males will rather use the more masculine boku, and the more-or-less neutral second person anata can be replaced by kisama in order to insult the hearer, or by the shorter form anta in informal discourse.

Even while not reaching the levels of Japanese, many languages have different pronouns for informal use, or use among friends, and for formal use or use about/towards superiors, especially in the second person. A common pattern is the so-called T-V distinction (named after the use of pronouns beginning in t- and v- in Romance languages, as in French tu/vous).

It is very common for pronouns to show more grammatical distinctions than nouns. The Romance languages have lost the Latin grammatical case for nouns, but preserve the distinction in the pronouns. The same holds for English with respect to its Germanic ancestor. Japanese and Chinese have no grammatical number whatsoever except in the pronoun system.

It is also not uncommon for languages not to have third person pronouns (such as English he and she). In those cases the usual way to refer to third persons is by using deictics or full noun phrases. Latin made do without third person pronouns, replacing them by deictics (which are in fact the source of personal pronouns in all Romance languages). Japanese has a few third person pronouns but prefers to use proper names, titles, or expressions like ano hito "that person over there".


In some languages, a pronoun is required whenever a noun or noun phrase needs to be referenced, and sometimes even when no such antecedent exists (cf English it rains). In many other languages, however, pronouns can be omitted when unnecessary or when context makes it clear who or what is being talked about. Such languages are called pro-drop languages. In some cases the information about the antecedent is preserved in the verb (through person/number inflection).

The disjunctive pronoun

In some languages, a disjunctive pronoun is the form of a pronoun used when it stands on its own, or with only the verb "to be": for example in answer to the question "Who wrote this page?". Disjunctive pronouns in English have caused some dispute. The natural answer for most English speakers in this context would be "me", parallel to the French "moi". Unfortunately, some grammarians have argued, and persuaded parts of the educational system, that the correct answer should be "I" (perhaps under the mistaken belief that English requires the subject and copula of the verb "to be" to agree; while this is true in Latin, it is untrue in other languages, e.g. French). This leads to affected sounding usages like, "It is I!".

Table of correlatives

The table of correlatives was conceived by L. L. Zamenhof (the inventor of Esperanto). It shows a number of categories and pronouns arranged within them. Many languages are quite regular when it comes to form pronouns, and this regularity can be seen in the table.

The table of correlatives for English follows. Note that while some categories are highly irregular, others (like the some/no/every columns) are not.

Referent Query This That Some No Every
Adjective which this that some no every
Person who this that someone no one everyone
Thing what this that something nothing everything
Place where here there somewhere nowhere everywhere
Time when now then sometime never always
Way how thus   somehow    
Reason why          

Some languages have more correlative categories than others. For example, while English deictics only distinguish between referents close to the speaker (this, here) and far from the speaker (that, there), Japanese makes a three-way distinction between close to the speaker (kore, koko), close to the listener (sore, soko), and far from both (are, asoko). Early Modern English made a similar distinction between this/here, that/there, and yon/yonder. Spanish, as well as other Romance languages, shows this same three-way distinction, dating back to Latin.

One of the most salient features of modern Indo-European languages is that there are ambiguities between relative pronouns and interrogative pronouns, and also between those and demonstrative pronouns. Consider the two different functions of who in Who's the criminal who did this?, or the meanings of that in That's the man that you saw back home.

Most other language families don't have this ambiguity, nor do several ancient Indo-European languages. For example, both Latin and ancient Greek distinguish the relative pronoun from the interrogative pronoun.

See also

Last updated: 02-07-2005 02:15:07
Last updated: 02-26-2005 20:28:43