Being a Pronoun

Chapter 5 of Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795) begins thus:

A PRONOUN is a word used instead of a noun, to avoid the too frequent repetition of the same word.

The definition is useless: flagrantly inadequate. Yet after more than two centuries people still repeat it. Chapter 5 of Nevile M. Gwynne’s book Gwynne’s Grammar (2011), like almost all other grammar books addressed to the general public, simply paraphrases Murray:

A pronoun is a word which stands in place of a noun. It is used to avoid clumsy, sometimes very clumsy, repetition.

It’s astonishing that people ever accepted this drivel. Look at Murray’s example of a pronoun “used instead of a noun” to avoid repetition: The man is happy; he is benevolent. If he stood for the noun, we’d predict *The man is happy; the he is benevolent, wouldn’t we? The lesson is that when pronouns do stand for other constituents, it’s noun phrases, not nouns. It’s amazing that generations of scholars could miss something that obvious.

But worse, many pronouns don’t replace or stand for anything. A few examples:

  • Look after yourself. Does the pronoun yourself avoid the repetition of some noun?
  • It looks like it’s going to rain. What nouns are replaced by the two occurrences of it?
  • It’s amazing the things you can find on the web. Where are the nouns that it and you are standing in place of here?
  • One should be careful to guard one’s privacy. What noun is being replaced by these uses of one?
  • George hated dentists, and it was common knowledge. What noun would have been repeated if it had not been used here?
  • Anyone who wants a copy can email me later. Can you find a noun that could be substituted for the pronoun who without creating ungrammaticality?
  • I think I love you. What repetitions of nouns are being avoided by the use of I and you? They certainly don’t stand for the names of the utterer and addressee respectively: Imagine the utterance being addressed to a beautiful woman by an amnesic who knows neither her name nor his own.

The traditional definition can be seen to be useless as soon as you know which items it is supposed to cover. Yet not only do people uncritically imbibe it; in some cases they become teachers or grammar-book authors and repeat it to others as if it were sensible. Grammar is treated not as an empirical subject, but as a sort of faith-based tradition of passing unintelligible dogma unquestioningly down the generations.

I sometimes feel like a zoologist in a world where popular books and school texts all insist that snakes are invertebrates, stubbornly ignoring evidence from reptilian physiology. Pronounhood doesn’t have to be a mystery: There are coherent criteria. To begin with, there is a set of five inflectional forms – NOMINATIVE, ACCUSATIVE, DEPENDENT GENITIVE, INDEPENDENT GENITIVE, and REFLEXIVE — that only pronouns have:

1st person singular I me my mine myself
2nd person singular you you your yours yourself
3rd person sing. masc. he him his his himself
3rd person sing. fem. she her her hers herself
3rd person sing. neut. it it its its itself
3rd person sing. indef. one one one’s one’s oneself
3rd person sing. interrog. who whom whose whose
1st person plural we us our ours ourselves
2nd person plural you you your yours yourselves
3rd person plural they them their theirs themselves


Second, unstressed pronoun direct objects have to be adjacent to the verb in a prepositional-verb construction: We can paraphrase figure the details out as figure out the details, but figure them out does not have the alternant *figure out them.

Third, confirmation tags always comprise an auxiliary verb (negative if and only if the main clause is not) followed by a nominative pronoun. Ordinary nouns are not allowed:

  1. Dee is pretty, isn’t she?
  2. *Dee is pretty, isn’t Dee?
  3. You didn’t see it, did you?
  4. *Hugh didn’t see it, did Hugh?

Along with I, you, he, she, it, one, we, and they, one other word occurs after the auxiliary in tags: the pleonastic there, which occurs as a dummy subject in existential clauses:

There wasn’t anything we could do, was there? This reveals that dummy there is syntactically a pronoun. (Morphologically it is defective, since it lacks the genitive and reflexive forms, and semantically it is inert.)

Serious grammatical description involves this sort of searching for sharply defined grammatical properties that distinguish the behaviors of different classes of words.

The traditional way of defining pronouns (and many other concepts, as I have mentioned here before) is hopeless; but the same need not be true of rational efforts to make scientific sense of English grammar. Return to Top