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The English Personal Pronoun System for ESL Students

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 1/5/2012

English pronouns fall into four categories: subject pronouns, object pronouns, possessive pronouns, and reflexive pronouns. Pronouns in English perform four functions: subject, direct object, indirect object, and prepositional complement. English pronouns also have natural, not grammatical, gender.

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    Traditionally defined as "words that can take the place of nouns and noun phrases," pronouns are a subclass of the noun, one of the eight parts of speech, that fall into four categories: subject pronouns, object pronouns, possessive pronouns, and reflexive pronouns. Pronouns are considered to belong to a closed class, meaning new pronouns cannot easily be created and current pronouns cannot easily be changed or deleted.

    Pronouns can perform almost all the same functions as other nouns and noun phrases including subject, subject complement, direct object, indirect object, and prepositional complement. ESL students must learn both the categories of English pronouns as well as the functions those pronouns perform.

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    Grammatical Gender

    Unlike in other languages such as German, Spanish, and French, pronouns in English lack grammatical gender. Grammatical gender is defined as nouns, pronouns, and noun phrases classified into categories such as masculine, feminine, and neuter. English nouns including pronouns instead reflect natural gender.

    For example, the noun boy is considered masculine because boys are male. The noun woman is likewise considered feminine because women are female. The nouns book and television, however, are considered neuter because such inanimate object are neither male nor female. ESL students must also learn to use pronouns with natural gender as opposed to grammatical gender.

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    Subject Pronouns

    The subject pronouns in English function as the subject of clauses. A clause is defined as consisting of a subject and predicate. For example, the clause the baby smiled contains the subject the baby and the predicate smiled. The English subject pronouns are:

    • I (first person singular)
    • you (second person singular)
    • he (third person singular masculine)
    • she (third person singular feminine)
    • it (third person singular neuter)
    • we (first person plural)
    • you (second person plural)
    • they (third person plural)

    The English subject pronouns also traditionally function as predicate nominatives. Also called subject complements, predicate nominatives are defined as nouns, noun phrases, and pronouns that follow a linking verb such as be (am, are, is) and refer back to the subject. For example:

    • The woman is my aunt.
    • She is my aunt. (she functions as the subject)
    • My aunt is she. (she functions as the predicate nominative)
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    Object Pronouns

    The object pronouns in English function as the direct object and indirect object of clauses as well as the object of prepositions or prepositional complements. For example, the noun phrase the cookie functions as the direct object of the clause the child ate the cookie. The noun phrase my sister functions as the indirect object of the clause my father gave my sister a gift. The noun phrase the wedding functions as the prepositional complement of the prepositional phrase after the wedding. The English object pronouns are:

    • me (first person singular)
    • you (second person singular)
    • him (third person singular masculine)
    • her (third person singular feminine)
    • it (third person singular neuter)
    • us (first person plural)
    • you (second person plural)
    • them (third person plural)
    • My brother kicked me. (me functions as the direct object)
    • My husband baked me cookies. (me functions as the indirect object)
    • The letter arrived for me. (me functions as the prepositional complement)

    Although subject pronouns traditionally function as predicate nominatives, all but the most formal settings now also allow for the use of the object pronoun as the predicate nominative. For example:

    • The librarian is a woman.
    • She is the librarian. (she functions as the subject)
    • The librarian is her. (her functions as the predicate nominative)
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    Possessive Pronouns

    The possessive pronouns in English indicate possession and function as the subject, subject complement, direct object, and indirect object of clauses and as prepositional complements. The English possessive pronouns are:

    • mine (first person singular)
    • yours (second person singular)
    • his (third person singular masculine)
    • hers (third person singular feminine)
    • its (third person singular neuter)*
    • ours (first person plural)
    • yours (second person plural)
    • theirs (third person plural)
    • Mine is the blue coat. (mine functions as the subject)
    • My husband brought mine. (mine functions as the direct object)
    • The roses are mine. (mine functions as the direct object)
    • I gave mine a bath. (mine functions as the indirect object)
    • You can stay at mine. (mine functions as the prepositional complement)

    *The third person singular neuter possessive pronoun its is possible although rarely used in standard written English.

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    Reflexive Pronouns

    The reflexive pronouns in English indicate the object of a sentence has the same antecedent as the subject and function as the direct object and indirect object of clauses and as prepositional complements. An antecedent is defined as the "thing" to which a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun refers. The English reflexive pronouns are:

    • myself (first person singular)
    • yourself (second person singular)
    • himself (third person singular masculine)
    • herself (third person singular feminine)
    • itself (third person singular neuter)
    • ourselves (first person plural)
    • yourselves (second person plural)
    • themselves (third person plural)

    • We punished ourselves for the mistake. (ourselves functions as the direct object)
    • The old woman drew herself a bath. (herself functions as the indirect object)
    • They laughed at themselves. (themselves functions as the prepositional complement)

    Reflexive pronouns can also function as subjects in some varieties of English such as Irish English.

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    Possessive Determiners

    Although frequently taught simultaneously with the English pronoun system, the possessive determiners are not pronouns but rather determiners. The possessive determiners in English are:

    • my (first person singular)
    • your (second person singular)
    • his (third person singular masculine)
    • her (third person singular feminine)
    • its (third person singular neuter)
    • our (first person plural)
    • your (second person plural)
    • their (third person plural)

    Possessive determiners are often confused with pronouns because of the resemblance of the English possessive determiners to many English pronouns in form. For example, the first person singular possessive determiners my closely resembles the first person singular object pronoun me. And, the third person singular female possessive determiners her has the same form as the third person singular female object pronoun her. However, the possessive determiners are determiners, not pronouns, because they function to determine the referents of noun phrases. Possessive determiners are also erroneously called possessive adjectives.

    For more information on English determiners, please see The Forms and Function of Determiners in English.

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    The accompanying printable vocabulary sheet the personal pronouns in English is available for download at English Personal Pronouns Reference Sheet.

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