Personal Pronouns

Personal Pronouns

The personal pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, we and they. They are used to represent people or things, primarily to avoid repetition.
  • Myra, David's kitten, looks cute, but he thinks she is evil.
  • (The personal pronouns he and she avoid the need to repeat David and kitten.)
The issue with personal pronouns is that they change depending on how they're used. Let's start by looking at all the forms:
Subjective PronounsObjective PronounsPossessive PronounsReflexive Pronouns
youyou*yoursyourself / yourselves
* no change

Based on how they're used, personal pronouns are categorised as one of the following:

Subjective Personal Pronouns. A subjective pronoun acts as the subject of a verb (i.e., the person or thing doing the verb).
  • He found Myra on the moor.
  • (He is the subject of the verb found.)
Objective Personal Pronouns. An objective pronoun acts as the object of a verb or a preposition.
  • David took her home and made a bed for her in the pantry.
  • (The first her is the direct object of the verb took. The second her is the object of the preposition for.)
Possessive Personal Pronouns. A possessive pronoun represents something owned and tells us the owner.
  • Myra protected the pantry, believing all the food was hers.
  • (A possessive pronoun replaces a possessive adjective and a noun, e.g., her food becomes hers, my story becomes mine and their jellybean becomes theirs.)
Reflexive Personal Pronouns. A reflexive pronoun refers back to the subject.
  • David did not blame himself for Myra's aggression.
  • (The subject is David. The reflexive pronoun himself refers back to David.)

Real-Life Examples of Personal Pronouns

Subjective Personal Pronouns
  • Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world. (Actress Marilyn Monroe)
  • We are what we believe we are. (Author CS Lewis)
Objective Personal Pronouns
  • Get the facts first, then distort them. (American author Mark Twain)
  • Conscience is the only incorruptible thing about us. (Henry Fielding)
Possessive Personal Pronouns
  • Build your reputation by helping other people build theirs. (Author Anthony D'Angelo)
  • Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose. (US President Lyndon Johnson)
Reflexive Personal Pronouns
  • If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care ofitself. (Business magnate Henry Ford)
  • Nature is wont to hide herself. (Philosopher Heraclitus)
Each of these quotations contains only one example of a personal pronoun. They werenít easy to find. It is more normal for a sentence to include several types of personal pronoun. This short sentence contains all four types:
  • I saw myself and her in ours. (Here, the personal pronouns are I (subjective), myself (reflexive), her (objective) and ours (possessive).)

Why Should I Care about Personal Pronouns?

Native English speakers nearly always use the correct personal pronouns, and there are few serious mistakes associated with them, but here are some noteworthy points. (1) The subjective pronoun I can't be the object of a verb or a preposition.
  • They found my wife and I under the snowdrift. [wrong]
  • (The subjective pronoun I must be the subject of a verb. Here, it's the direct object of the verb found. It should read They found me and my wife.)
  • I sent condolences from my wife and I. [wrong]
  • (I must be the subject of a verb. After a preposition (in this case, from), you need the objective pronoun me. It should read from me and my wife.)
  • Keep this between you and I. [wrong]
  • (The term between you and I is always wrong. I cannot be the object of a preposition (in this case, between).)
Native English speakers rarely make this mistake with other personal pronouns. To some ears, terms like from my wife and I and between you and I sound more highbrow. Highbrow they might be. Wrong they are.

(2) There are no apostrophes in possessive personal pronouns.

Yes, it's true that apostrophes can be used to show possession (e.g., dragon's tooth, newt's eye), but there are no apostrophes in any possessive personal pronouns. That's a 100% rule.
    I like her's better than their's. [wrong]
Over the years, I have been challenged on this "100% rule" with claims that one's breaks the rule, e.g., One likes one's better than theirs. (The challengers freely admit that only the Queen might say something like this.) But, actually, their claims are flawed for two reasons: firstly, one is classified as an indefinite pronoun not a personal pronoun, and, secondly, even though one's exists as a possessive adjective (e.g., One's orb is heavy), its use as a possessive pronoun (e.g., One's is heavy) is non-standard English. So, no, the Queen wouldn't say it, and, yes, it is a 100% rule.

"What about it's?", you might ask. Well, it's (with an apostrophe) is an expansion of it is or it has. That's another 100% rule. If you use it's, make sure you can expand to it is or it has. If you can't, it's wrong.

(3) This is good stuff for learning a foreign language.

If you're not someone who says between you and I or someone who puts an apostrophe in theirs, then the next best reason to care about personal-pronoun terminology is that it will help you with learning a foreign language.

If you're a native English speaker, then whether you know it or not, you currently select a personal pronoun having first determined its:
  • Number. Is the personal pronoun representing something singular or plural?
  • Person. Is the personal pronoun representing something in the first person (this is the speaker himself or a group that includes the speaker (I, we)), the second person (this is the speaker's audience (you)), or the third person (this is everybody else (he, she, it, they).)
  • Gender. Is the personal pronoun representing something male, female or neuter?
  • Case. Is the personal pronoun representing something which is a subject or an object?
So, when you say something as simple as We like him, your brain has whipped through that list twice, making eight decisions on personal pronouns. That's a lot of grammar processing happening in a flash. When you start learning a foreign language (particularly in the classroom), this grammar processing is done far more consciously and systematically.

Students who understand our grammar terms absorb the grammar of other languages mucho mas rapido. Knowing our personal-pronoun terminology, for example, equips a student with neat mental boxes where the foreign pronouns can be stored, and it also means that fewer lessons will come as a surprise. "Oh, so that's how they form possessive pronouns" is a far better reaction than "Jeepers! How many more words do they need for she?"

(4) You can use they instead of he/she.

In English, there is no singular gender-neutral personal pronoun. This example will make that clearer:
  • If a burglar falls through your skylight, he could sue you.
  • (Why he? Girls can be burglars too.)
Here are your options (in my order of preference) for fixing this problem:

Option 1: Try an all-plural version.

  • If burglars fall through your skylight, they could sue you.
  • (This is a good fix, if your sentence allows it.)

Option 2: Use a "singular" they.

  • If a burglar falls through your skylight, they could sue you.
  • (Even though they (plural) refers to burglar (singular), using a "singular" they is now an acceptable practice. Some people won't like it, but actually it's a pretty good compromise for handling the fact that we just don't have a singular gender-neutral personal pronoun.)

Option 3: Use he or she or he/she.

  • If a burglar falls through your skylight, he/she could sue you.
  • (This is rubbish. You'd have to really hate the "singular" they to choose this option.)

Option 4: Just use he.

  • If a burglar falls through your skylight, he could sue you.
  • (This is out of date. You might get away with it, especially with such a male-dominated "trade" as burglary, but it's clearly sexist. Using he for he/she is only just hanging in there as an option because it used to be an acceptable way of overcoming our grammar's shortcoming. It wasn't uncommon for the opening pages of a document to include the caveat "He means he or she". Avoid this option.)
This entry is about personal pronouns, but this issue affects possessive adjectives too.
  • A journalist must protect his sources.
  • (His is a possessive adjective. There is an entry on possessive adjectives.)
This issue can be fixed using the same options:
  • Journalists must protect their sources. (Go plural. A good option.)
  • A journalist must protect their sources. (Use a "singular" their. Good enough)
  • A journalist must protect his/her sources. (Use his/her. Rubbish)
  • A journalist must protect his sources. (Use he for his/her. Pants)

Option 5: Don't use myself when giving an order

A reflexive personal pronoun refers back to the subject. When you give an order (i.e., an imperative sentence), the implied subject is "you". This means you can only use yourself or yourselves in an imperative sentence. You can't use myself.
  • Clean yourself up! [Correct]
  • (Remember, the reflexive personal pronoun (yourself) must refer back to the implied "you". ("You" clean yourself up!) That's grammatically okay.)
  • Write to myself if there's an issue. [Wrong]
  • (Remember, the reflexive personal pronoun (myself) must refer back to the implied "you". ("You" write to myself if there's an issue.) That's grammatically not okay. It should say me not myself.)
This is covered in the entries on reflexive pronoun and emphatic pronouns.

Option 6: "It was me" is acceptable

People often question whether they should say "It was me" or "It was I". It's a fair question because a subject complement (in this case, the word after was) is supposed to be written in the subjective case (i.e., I is correct), but we know that everyone has been saying "It was me" for so long that "It was I" now sounds wrong or, at the very least, pretentious to most.

Here's the very quick answer: you can say either.

This is also covered in the entries on linking verbs and subject complements.

Key Points

  • Don't use a term like my wife and I unless it's the subject of a verb.
  • Never say between you and I.
  • Donít put an apostrophe in yours, hers, ours or theirs.
  • If you use it's (with an apostrophe), make sure you can expand it to it is or it has. If you can't, remove the apostrophe.
  • They can be used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.
    • Ask the person if they voted.
  • Don't use myself in an imperative sentence (i.e., an order).
    • Arrange a meeting with myself if necessary. [wrong]
  • You can say "It was me" or "It was I".
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