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Introduction to Pronouns & What is a Pronoun

A pronoun is one of the most important components of writing and speaking. Without them, we’d be cluttering up our language by repeating the names of things over and over again.

In order to make your communication skills as effective as possible, you have to have a strong understanding of what is a pronoun and a pronouns definition. In this article, you’ll learn all about the definition of pronoun and how to avoid confusion when using them in your writing and speech. After going over this article, you can find more information if you click here. By the end of this guide, pronoun definition will no longer be a mystery to you!

What is a Pronoun?

Let’s get the basics out of the way with a starter pronoun definition: A pronoun functions the same as a noun in that it names a person, place, thing, or idea. How do we define pronoun specifically, then? Specifically, it acts as a replacement for or reference to a preceding specific noun. 

This pronouns definition can be further broken down into a few categories:

  • personal
  • possessive
    intensive, reciprocal
  • indefinite
  • relative
  • subject and object pronouns
  • interrogative
  • demonstrative

Let’s take a look at each definition of pronoun individually.

Let’s Get Personal

When looking at a pronoun definition and examples, personal pronouns are the ones you probably think of first. These are pronouns that refer to a particular subject or object and include the words: 

  • I
  • Me
  • You
  • He
  • Him
  • She
  • Her
  • It
  • They
  • Them
  • We
  • Us

They come in two varieties: subject, which indicates who or what is doing an action, and object, which indicates who or what is being acted upon. Let’s jump in. What is a pronoun in the following sentence?

  • Michael and I went to the movies. We saw a comedy.

I in the first sentence indicates the speaker, and we in the second sentence replaces Michael and I from the first. Both are subjects.

  • Sarah was nervous because the teacher asked her to present to the class.

In this example, her refers back to Sarah and is the object of the verb asked.

Yours, Mine, and Ours: Possessives

Possessive pronouns do not replace a preceding noun, but they do indicate ownership. A possessive pronouns definition includes the words: 

  • My
  • Mine
  • Your
  • Yours
  • Her
  • Hers
  • His
  • Its
  • Our
  • Ours
  • Their
  • Theirs

Now let’s see them in use. What is a pronoun in this sentence:

  • The shoes are mine.

Mine tells us the shoes in question belong to the speaker. Let’s try one more sentence:

  • His office is clean.

In this sentence, his tells us to whom the clean office belongs.

Right Back At You!: Reflexives/Intensives

Within a definition of pronoun, the reflexive category is pretty straightforward: they’re used when someone or something (denoted by a regular noun) acts upon itself. Both subject and object define pronouns in a sentence. The dead giveaway is the suffix: -self or -selves at the end of the word.

  • I cut myself when I was chopping onions.

Myself explains who the speaker cut.

The intensive definition of pronoun is basically the same as a reflexive one, however, there are two differences:

  1. Intensives aren’t needed to make a sentence complete (reflexives are needed).
  2. Intensives place emphasis on the antecedent. 
    • Scroll to the bottom of this guide to learn more about what is a pronoun relative to antecedents. 

If you use the above to define pronoun in the intensive form, you get a sentence like this:

  • The squirrel opened the peanut shell itself

Itself places emphasis on the squirrel. 

If you’re struggling with understanding what is a pronoun that is reflexive or intensive, take out the pronoun and read the sentence out loud. Let’s try this by removing the pronoun from the example sentences above.

  • Reflexive: I cut when I was chopping onions.
  • Intensive: The squirrel opened the packet. 

According to our reflexive pronoun definition, the sentence should no longer make sense. If the sentence still makes sense, the removed word follows the intensive pronouns definition and is intensive.

You Get Me?: Reciprocals

Each other and one another define what is a pronoun on a reciprocal level; they receive an action simultaneously. The number of nouns define pronouns to be used. 

  • Mom and Dad love each other.

The feeling is mutual between two people. 

  • The monkeys are grooming one another

The action is received by all monkeys, notably three or more. 

To Infinity And…: Indefinites

Pronouns definition goes into the beyond with indefinites! A pronoun doesn’t have to refer to a specific person, place, thing, or idea—it often refers to something unspecific. Take these examples:

  • Many 
  • Anyone
  • Everyone
  • Each
  • Nobody
  • Both

Let’s look at a couple of these indefinite pronouns in the context of a sentence.

  • Nobody wants to fail.

Nobody is the subject of the sentence, but not a specific noun.

  • Most agreed to cease the argument.

Most here refers to most of some group that’s been previously mentioned, but does not specify whom exactly.

It’s All Relative

When you look at the pronoun definition for relatives, you have to understand that its defining characteristic is its relationship to previously named things. A relative pronoun is often explained in a relative clause and it replaces a previously defined noun as more information is given. Relative pronoun definition relies on that noun.  

  • We live in a house that is a century old.

The word that links the two clauses and substitutes for house in the second clause.

  • Students who study do better on tests.

In this sentence, who is a reference to students and defines the subgroup that the sentence describes: not just students, but ones who study.

Who or Whom?

Trying to find a pronoun definition for who and whom can be challenging. These often confused pronouns are defined as subject and object pronouns

There is a trick for figuring out their pronouns definition. Think about how you would answer the question then try the following:

  • If you can replace the word with he or she (subjects), use who.
  • If you can replace it with him or her (objects), use whom

Let’s do an example using the above pronoun definition tip.

  • Who/whom took the box? 
    • He took the box. = Correct
    • Him took the box. = Incorrect

Based on the above, you know that who should be used: “Who took the box?” Let’s do one more:

  • To who/whom does the book belong? 
    • The book belongs to he. = Incorrect
    • The book belongs to him. = Correct

Based on this, you know it should be “To whom does the book belong?”

Question and Answer: Interrogatives

In considering what is a pronoun, we tend to think only about words that can substitute for previously-named nouns. That’s not always the case as we define pronoun usage! The interrogative pronouns, as you might guess, ask questions that would then be answered with an identifying noun, reversing the usual relationship.

  • Who opened the box?

Who asks for a person to be named in answer.

  • What is the book about?

What asks for a slightly more complex answer, perhaps an abstract noun or a full sentence.

One more pronouns definition group to discuss. Ready?

Demonstratives, Please!

That, this, and these take the cake for demonstrative pronouns definition. They point to time and space, but more specifically, something previously mentioned, the antecedent. The antecedent will place importance on the definition of pronoun. 

  • I want to eat a piece of strawberry shortcake from yesterday. Do you remember that

That, being the strawberry shortcake. 

  • There are cookies on the kitchen counter. Did you make these?

These refers to the cookies on the counter. 

The antecedent is sometimes understood in context of conversation.

  • This is wonderful! 

The speaker is referencing their surroundings. The desserts define pronoun choice.

Make sense so far? Want a review of how to define pronoun? Check this out for a handy summary of what’s been covered up to now: definition of pronoun guide! And remember to check your papers with a paper checker from Citation Machine Plus.

Pronouns and Antecedents

Let’s get more into the background of what it a pronoun and a pronoun definition. Recall how this part of speech generally refers back (or sometimes forward) to some other noun? That related noun is called the antecedent and is the key to avoiding confusion when debating what is a pronoun. In most cases, it will be clear which preceding noun is the antecedent. You won’t have any questions about the definition of pronoun

  • I met Charlie yesterday. He is the store owner.

He very clearly can only refer to Charlie (the antecedent).

  • The crowds began cheering when they saw the star walk by.

In this case, they refers back to the crowds (the antecedent).

There may be instances where there could potentially be more than one antecedent. In sentences like these, you must rely on context clues.

  • Jane asked Mary for her opinion on the project.

Her could, out of context, refer to either Jane or Mary. However, Jane wouldn’t need to ask Mary about Jane’s own opinion; her must refer to Mary. In order to define pronoun, the possible antecedent closest to the pronoun is probably correct. 

In some cases, though, this still results in an unclear interpretation.

  • Joe accidentally backed his car into the trashcan and dented it.

What got dented, the car or the trash can? Either one could make sense. When thinking about pronouns definitions, make sure to phrase the sentence in a way that removes the ambiguity. For instance, this sentence could become:

  • Joe dented his car when he accidentally backed it into the trash can.

Now that you’re comfortable with a definition of pronoun and its many types, it’s a great time to take the next step in organizing your writing and familiarize yourself with MLA format and APA format. These are the two most common formatting and citation styles you’ll encounter, but it’s always a good idea to learn about more styles too!

Happy writing using your new pronoun definition knowledge. 

Posted March 6, 2019. Updated May 14, 2020.

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