Section 4: Pronouns

Pronouns typically stand in for nouns and noun phrases. The antecedent is the noun phrase referred to by the pronoun.

  • Did you see that horrible accidentIt really frightened me.
  • that horrible accident (antecedent) = it (pronoun)

Pronouns differ from other structure-class words because they can change inflections. See how the different personal pronouns in this passage all refer to the same antecedent:

Karen went purse-shopping. She had to have the latest clutch. The store’s staff helped her out a lot while she shopped. Finally, the purse was hers!

You may have learned that pronouns substitute for nouns. That’s not entirely accurate; they actually substitute for nominal phrases. If they only substituted for nouns, we would change


That old torn hat is lying there 


That old torn it is lying there.

Because pronouns substitute for entire nominal phrases, however, we can say It is lying there.

Notice that we need the context of the first sentence (That old torn hat is lying there) to understand what it is. The context provides an antecedent for it. When speaking to someone, your context might be something you’re pointing to, rather than a verbalized antecedent:

  • As you’re pointing to an old desktop computer, you say, “It runs so slow.”

Pronoun Forms

Personal pronouns refer to people or things. The form of the pronoun can indicate:

  • 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person (I, you, he, she, it)
  • number (I/we, she/them)
  • gender (he, she)

The form of personal pronouns can also indicate whether they are functioning as subjects of sentences, as objects of verbs or prepositions, or as possessives.

  • Karen went purse-shopping. She had to have the latest clutch. (subject case)
  • The store’s staff helped her out a lot while she shopped. (object case)
  • Finally, the purse was hers! (possessive case)

NOTE: be sure that you can recognize the difference between a possessive determiner and a possessive pronoun.

When the antecedent occurs in the same sentence as the pronoun, the pronoun is reflexive:

  • You saw yourself in the mirror.
  • Phil criticized himself.
  • She promised herself never to eat McDonald’s late at night again.

When multiple antecedents all engage in the same mutual action, they call for reciprocal pronouns:

  • Can you imagine 23 faculty members shouting at one another?
  • We know each other very well.

Indefinite pronouns usually don’t have a specific referent, so they have no antecedent. You don’t need any context to understand the pronouns in these statements:

  • Nobody came to our party.
  • One should always say please and thank you.

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:


For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following sentence from The Brothers Karamazov for pronouns.

He completely abandoned that child of his first marriage, not from malice, nor because of some matrimonial grievances, but simply because he forgot him.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the PRONOUN SAMPLES ANALYSES page.