The Grammarphobia Blog

Term limits

Q: I’m a research assistant on a team studying the people tweeted about on Twitter. To present our work succinctly, we’d like to distinguish between pronouns that refer to people and those that refer to places or things. Are there terms for such pronouns?

A: As you’re aware, a pronoun is a word (like “who” or “which”) that can be used in place of a noun (like “Bertie” or “Jeep”). I’m not aware, though, of a term for a pronoun that can stand in for only a person, or a term for a pronoun that can stand in for only a place or a thing.

English has many kinds of pronouns (personal, reflexive, demonstrative, indefinite, interrogative, relative), but each category includes words for people as well as words for things. In fact, not even every personal pronoun refers to a person. “It,” for example, is a personal pronoun that’s used in place of a thing.

If this isn’t confusing enough, the relative pronoun “that” can refer to either a person or a thing, despite the common misconception that it can stand in for only a thing. I wrote a blog item a few years ago about “that” vs. “who.”

In the glossary at the end of my grammar book Woe Is I, I describe the different kinds of pronouns. If you want to brush up on them, here’s an excerpt:

“A personal pronoun can be a subject (I, you, he, she, it, we, they); an object (me, you, him, her, it, us, them); or a possessive (my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs). Some of these (my, your, his, her, its, our, their) are also called possessive adjectives, since they describe (or modify) nouns.

“A reflexive pronoun calls attention to itself (it ends with self or selves): myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves. Reflexive pronouns are used to emphasize (She herself is Hungarian) or to refer to the subject (He blames himself).

“A demonstrative pronoun points out something: this, that, these, those. It can be used by itself (Hold this) or with a noun, as an adjective (Who is this guy?).

“An indefinite pronoun refers to a vague or unknown person or thing: all, another, any, anybody, anyone, anything, both, each, either, every, everybody, everyone, everything, few, many, much, neither, no one, nobody, none, one, other, several, some, somebody, someone, something, such (All is lost). Some of these, too, can serve as adjectives.

“An interrogative pronoun is used to ask a question: what, which, who, whom, whose (Who’s on first?).

“A relative pronoun introduces a dependent (or subordinate) clause: that, what, whatever, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose (He’s the guy who stole my heart).”

I hope this helps, and good luck in your research.

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