In traditional grammar, pronouns are often classified with nouns. But a little thought shows us that nouns and pronouns have very different forms. Pronouns also function somewhat differently than nouns do.
In form, pronouns differ in that they are a closed set – new members are not routinely added, as we find with nouns – and a relatively small set. They also don’t add derivational morphemes (like un- or –en or –ful), although some of them do add inflectional morphemes; and personal pronouns inflect for case and gender. (More on this later.)
Function of pronouns:
In function, pronouns replace both nouns and noun phrases.
Polly opened the kitchen door.
She opened it.
Not: she opened the kitchen it. That is, it takes as its antecedent not just door but the noun phrase “the kitchen door.”
Let’s stop for a moment and discuss two terms. First, antecedent. This is the word we use to mean “that word this other word is referring back to.”
This chicken is far too burned. I should chuck it.
(The antecedent of “it” is “This chicken.”)
No one expects the Spanish Inquisition – but maybe they should start!
Now what do we mean when we say “noun phrase”?
In the language of linguistics, “phrase” means a group of words that are working together as a unit. A phrase will always have a headword, and that headword is the word which gives the phrase its identity.
Thus, the headword to a noun phrase is a noun; the headword for a prepositional phrase is a preposition; and so on.
So look at this sentence:
The little red Miata convertible crashed into the giant black SUV.
The verb is crashed.
The subject of this sentence is the noun phrase “The little red Miata convertible” – and the headword of that is convertible. (Everything else in that noun phrase modifies convertible.)
We also have a prepositional phrase, “into the giant black SUV.” The headword in that phrase is “into,” which is the preposition. More about prepositional phrases later.
Personal pronouns in English are words that point to people or things that are currently present or which have been recently referred to in speech or writing. We have first, second, and third personal pronouns – word like I, me, you, he, she, we, they, them.
Personal pronouns can inflect, or change their forms, to indicate number, gender, and case.
What do we mean by “inflect for number, gender, case”? By this we mean that the shape of a personal pronoun will change depending on
· whether it is singular or plural (inflecting for number)
· its grammatical function in a sentence (inflecting for case)
· the gender of the person or thing it refers to (inflecting for gender).
Thus we have these sentences:
Luis taught Elvis to juggle. He learned fast.
Luis taught him juggling in a week.
Both Ivy and Luis can juggle well. They learned as children.
No one ever taught them to cook, however.
Elvis can cook – he says it is much easier than juggling.
In the above sentences, notice that we change the form of the pronouns (from he to him, from they to them) depending on the grammatical role the pronoun plays in the sentence – whether it is a subject, or an object, in these specific examples. Notice also that pronouns change form to indicate number (he, they, it) and gender (it, instead of either he or she in the final sentence).
Here in these sentences –
Luis took Emma, Elvis and Ivy along with him to Fayetteville.
Luis and Emma had shopping to do, but Elvis and Ivy just went along for the ride.
If we were going to replace Emma with a pronoun in either of these sentences, we would want to think about the case, number, and gender of the pronoun. Gender’s not hard, usually; but what case would we want?
What if we replaced “Elvis and Ivy” with a pronoun in the second sentence?
In all these cases, we want to think about the grammatical function of the noun/s the pronoun is replacing. If it is functioning as a subject, use the subject case of the pronoun. If it is functioning as an object, use the object case.
Usage: Personal pronouns run into a number of problems connected to usage.
First, we see the problem mentioned above – using the wrong case of the pronoun. This occurs when we use an object case where we should have a subject case (uncommon) or a subject case where we should have an object case (very common).
The only times we see the first usage error is when people misuse who/whom, or in the construction “It is (I/me)” / “That is (she/her)” and so on.
Let’s start with the second problem. Technically, when we have this sentence:
These are errors. We can blame this on our friends in the 17th century, who thought grammar was logic. Because, they reasoned, in a linking verb construction, A=A (that is, because the subject and the complement were the same thing), therefore they should be in the same case. So since the subject was in the subject case, the complement should also be in the subject case.
No one who spoke English at the time used the subject case for a complement pronoun; and no one who hadn’t been taught grammar by one of these grammarians or their students ever did (or does) ever after; but that’s the rule that’s come down to us.
It’s also why the predicate half of a linking verb construction is called the predicate nominative – nominative being the word for subject case. L
If you want to be strictly formal, you should write
It is I.
That is she standing on the bandstand.
As to who/whom, the problem we find here is that almost no one these can tell which of these ought to be used where. But everyone does know that “whom” sounds fancy and elite. So when they’re trying to write very proper English, they’ll use whom instead of who, leading to errors like this one:
Whomever wins the contest will get the prize.
I knew whom won.
The rule is to use who where we need a subject pronoun and whom where we need an object pronoun. The cheat is to ask yourself – would I say he here or him? If you’d say him, you can say whom.
But the real truth is, don’t say whom. Only twits say whom. Just don’t use the word, and you’ll be fine.
When the doctor greeted the patient, she was smiling.
Our teachers found talking with students about math changed their opinion of how to prepare for tests.
After finding a puppy in an old box, Ivy carried it home.
James told Luis he had left his jacket in his truck.
It each of these examples, the antecedent for the pronouns are not clear. Every time we use a pronoun, its antecedent should be clear and unambiguous – the reader should have no problem deciding what word that pronoun refers to.
If there is any ambiguity, rewrite the sentence to clarify, replacing the pronoun with a noun if necessary.
When the doctor greeted the patient, the doctor was smiling.
Our teachers found talking with students about math changed the opinion of the students about how to prepare for tests.
After finding a puppy in an old box, Ivy carried the puppy home.
James told Luis, “Yo! You left your jacket in my truck!”
Finally, the last problem with personal pronoun is apostrophes. Possessive personal pronouns do not take apostrophes. Plural pronouns do not take apostrophes. (Neither do plural nouns.) The only time we want an apostrophe with a personal pronoun is when we have a contraction.
That dog is crying. Its collar is too tight. ß No apostrophe.
I’m crying. It’s too funny. (It = it’s, so yes, apostrophe)
My family wondered if the house was theirs. ß No apostrophe.
I’m sure it’s not. (I am, it is, so yes, apostrophe.)