Personal Pronouns | Definition, List & Examples
Personal pronouns are words like ‘you’ that refer to the person speaking or writing, to the person they’re addressing, or to other people and things.
Like other pronouns, they are used in place of nouns to allow us to speak and write more concisely. For example, without the first-person pronoun ‘I’, you would have to use your name every time you wanted to make a statement about yourself.
Personal pronouns change form based on person, number, gender, and case, as shown in the table below, which you can also download.
Person, number, gender, and case
Four factors indicate which personal pronoun you should use in a particular grammatical context to refer to a particular person or thing. These are:
- Person (first, second, or third)
- Number (singular or plural)
- Gender (masculine, feminine, neuter, or epicene)
- Case (subject, object, possessive, or reflexive)
To demonstrate correct pronoun-antecedent agreement, a personal pronoun must match its antecedent (the person or thing it refers back to) in person, number, and gender. Case is determined by how the pronoun is used in the sentence, not by the antecedent.
Personal pronouns are called ‘personal’ not because they always refer to people (‘it’, for example, doesn’t) but because they indicate a grammatical feature called person. There are three possibilities:
- First-person pronouns are used to refer to the person speaking or writing.
- Second-person pronouns are used to refer to the person being addressed.
- Third-person pronouns are used to refer to anyone or anything else.
Number indicates whether the personal pronoun refers to an individual person or thing or to a group of two or more.
- Singular pronouns refer to an individual person or thing.
- Plural pronouns refer to two or more people or things.
Gender is how personal pronouns indicate the gender of the person referred to – or the lack of gender of objects and concepts.
- Masculine pronouns refer to men and boys.
- Feminine pronouns refer to women and girls.
- Gender-neutral pronouns, also referred to as epicene, refer to people who identify as neither male nor female, or to people whose gender is not considered relevant in context.
- Neuter pronouns refer to things that are not people: objects, concepts, places, and sometimes animals.
Case means the grammatical role that the pronoun plays in a sentence. Personal pronouns can play four different roles in a sentence:
- Subject pronouns act as the subject of a verb – the person or thing that performs the action described.
- Object pronouns act as the object of a verb or preposition – the person or thing that is acted upon.
- Possessive pronouns indicate ownership – they stand for something or someone that belongs to someone or something else. These are slightly different from possessive determiners.
- Reflexive pronouns are used instead of object pronouns when when the object of the sentence is the same as the subject. The same words also serve as emphatic pronouns.
The first-person pronouns don’t vary based on gender, but they do vary based on number and case, as shown in the table below. The first-person singular subject pronoun ‘I’ is the only English pronoun that is always capitalised.
Note that there is ongoing debate about the use of first-person pronouns in academic writing.
The second-person pronouns also do not vary based on gender, only the reflexive form varies based on number, and the subject and object forms are the same. This makes them the least variable set of personal pronouns but can occasionally lead to ambiguity.
Second-person pronouns should almost never be used in academic writing, as addressing the reader directly is seen as too informal.
The third-person pronouns are much more variable than the first- and second-person pronouns, since they also change form based on gender, in addition to number and case.
As well as forms for the masculine and feminine, there is a neuter (or inanimate) form that’s used to refer to things other than people (e.g., ideas, objects, animals).
There’s also an increasingly widely used gender-neutral (or epicene) form, the singular ‘they’. This is largely identical to the plural form (which is always gender-neutral), except that the reflexive ‘themself’ is sometimes used instead of ‘themselves’ (though it’s often considered nonstandard).
|Neuter / inanimate singular
|Gender-neutral singular (epicene)
The impersonal pronoun ‘one’, as the name suggests, doesn’t vary based on person – it’s not in the first, second, or third person.
Rather, like an indefinite pronoun, it refers to a nonspecific, generic individual, usually for the purpose of making a generalisation or stating a principle. It’s considered quite formal and often replaced with ‘you’, or otherwise avoided, in informal contexts.
The impersonal pronoun doesn’t vary based on number or gender, and it has the same form whether used as a subject or object. It does have a separate form for the reflexive, but no possessive pronoun form.
Other personal pronouns
There are a few other personal pronouns that are rarely used, nonstandard, or archaic (no longer used). These generally shouldn’t show up in your academic or formal writing, but it’s worth knowing they exist.
Archaic second-person pronouns
The lack of variety in English second-person pronouns is somewhat unusual, as other languages (e.g., French) make clearer distinctions between singular and plural and between formal and informal ways of addressing someone.
Early Modern English used a larger set of second-person pronouns to convey this kind of distinction. The ‘th’ pronouns were used for informal address, while the ‘y’ pronouns were used for both formal address and plurals.
These additional pronouns are not used in contemporary standard English unless a deliberate attempt is being made to imitate old-fashioned or biblical language in a humorous or literary context. Some of them have survived in certain dialects of English.
|ye / you
|ye / you
‘Y’all’ and other nonstandard second-person plural pronouns
The lack of distinction between singular and plural in the standard second-person pronouns has given rise to various ways of expressing the plural in different dialects.
Though some of these are very widely used in everyday speech, they are all still regarded as nonstandard and not used in formal or academic writing. Some examples are given in the table below.
|Used in the US, especially in the South and in AAVE
|Used mainly in Pittsburgh, PA, and the surrounding area
|Used in the US and increasingly in Canada, the UK, and Australia; mostly used in a gender-neutral sense despite containing the word “guys”
|Used in the UK and Australia
|Used in Ireland and various regions of the UK, as well as other parts of the world such as Australia and parts of Canada
In some contexts, an individual might refer to themselves as ‘we’ and therefore use the alternative reflexive pronoun ourself.
This commonly occurs with the royal we (used by monarchs), the editorial we (used by an individual speaking for a publication or organisation), and the generic we (used to make generalisations). It’s not advisable to use any of these, or the word ‘ourself’, in academic writing.
‘Hisself’, ‘theirselves’, and ‘theirself’
Other nonstandard reflexive pronouns are hisself (replacing ‘himself’), theirselves (replacing ‘themselves’), and theirself (replacing ‘themself’). These are all widely regarded as mistakes and should be avoided in writing generally, whether formal or informal.
The third-person plural object pronoun ‘them’ is often replaced by ’em in informal contexts. It’s older than you’d expect, believed to actually be an abbreviation of the Middle English pronoun ‘hem’ rather than the current pronoun ‘them’. But it’s not used in formal or academic writing.
Capitalised pronouns in a religious context
The second- and third-person pronouns He/Him/His/Himself, She/Her/Hers/Herself, and You/Yours/Yourself are sometimes capitalised in a religious context when they are used to refer to a deity.
This is commonly encountered in sacred works such as the Bible or the Quran and in the writing of other religious figures, though it’s not always done consistently. It’s not necessary to imitate this usage in a nonreligious context.
Frequently asked questions
- What is a personal pronoun?
Personal pronouns are words like ‘he’, ‘me’, and ‘yourselves’ that refer to the person you’re addressing, to other people or things, or to yourself. Like other pronouns, they usually stand in for previously mentioned nouns (antecedents).
They are called ‘personal’ not because they always refer to people (e.g., ‘it’ doesn’t) but because they indicate grammatical person (first, second, or third person). Personal pronouns also change their forms based on number, gender, and grammatical role in a sentence.
- What are the first, second, and third person?
In grammar, person is how we distinguish between the speaker or writer (first person), the person being addressed (second person), and any other people, objects, ideas, etc. referred to (third person).
Person is expressed through the different personal pronouns, such as ‘I’ (first-person pronoun), ‘you’ (second-person pronoun), and ‘they’ (third-person pronoun). It also affects how verbs are conjugated, due to subject-verb agreement (e.g., ‘I am’ vs. ‘you are’).
In fiction, a first-person narrative is one written directly from the perspective of the protagonist. A third-person narrative describes the protagonist from the perspective of a separate narrator. A second-person narrative (very rare) addresses the reader as if they were the protagonist.
- What are preferred pronouns?
The term preferred pronouns is used to mean the personal pronouns a person identifies with and would like to be referred to by. People usually state the subject and object pronoun (e.g., ‘she/her’) but may also include the possessive (e.g., ‘she/her/hers’).
Most people go by the masculine ‘he/him’, the feminine ‘she/her’, the gender-neutral singular ‘they/them’, or some combination of these. There are also neopronouns used to express nonbinary gender identity, such as ‘xe/xem’. These are less common than the singular ‘they’.
The practice of stating one’s preferred pronouns (e.g., in a professional context or on a social media profile) is meant to promote inclusion for transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
Sources for this article
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