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What Are Pronouns?
For the first few months of our lives, we listen to all the sounds around us and discover which ones are meaningful, which will get us what we want and which are superfluous and a waste of time. At some point, we learn our names.
When children begin to speak, they refer to themselves by using their given name: "John hungry" for example, instead of "I'm hungry." It takes a while, years in fact, to really grasp the fact that the word "I" is the word that all people use to refer to themselves when they are the subject of a sentence. Likewise, it takes awhile to absorb the abstraction that "me" is the word to refer to oneself when one is the object of an action -- a receiver of some sort.
Pronouns comprise a small number of words in all languages that are used to create that economy of expression permitting speakers to avoid constant use of nouns. Imagine going a day -- even an hour -- during which you cannot use a pronoun.
Pronouns are further subdivided into subject pronouns, direct and indirect object pronouns, objective pronouns (when they are the object of a preposition), possessive pronouns and reflexive pronouns (when the subject and the object are the same person or persons, that is, when a subject performs an action and is also the receiver of the action). In some languages, there may be no difference in form; in others, each function is matched by a distinct form.
In Spanish, there is considerable "recycling" of forms to perform the various grammatical roles named above. The pronoun me for instance, serves for all situations in which the first-person singular is an object, except for when it is the object of a preposition, when the form mí is used (note that the accent mark distinguishes this word, in print anyway, from the possessive adjective mi, which sounds the same, but is used before a noun and means my).
There are forty pronouns in Spanish -- if you count masculine, feminine, singular and plural forms as separate pronouns. If you do not count these gender and number alterations, there are only thirty-one.
Pronouns do a lot of heavy lifting and it is important, as you study Spanish, to understand which form is used for which function. The forms are easy to learn because there are so few. When students have problems with pronouns, I usually uncover a conceptual confusion at the heart of their difficulty.
- Author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.