Pronouns are words that can be used in place of a noun or a noun phrase. The most well known example of pronouns are personal pronouns, which can refer to the individual or group speaking (first person), the individual or group being spoken to (second person), or other individuals or things (third person). In many Indo-European languages, including English, third person personal pronouns can be gendered.
In English all third person personal pronouns have five grammatical form. The forms are:
- Nominative: Used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence. (They went to the store.)
- Accusative: Used when the pronoun is the object of the sentence. (I met them today.)
- Pronominal Possessive: Used to show possession/relation to a noun, coming directly before the noun in question. (They walked their dog today.)
- Predicative Possessive: Used to show possession of a noun, coming directly after a linking verb. This is the least common pronoun form, as it requires a very specific sentence construction that is not common in normal speech. When listing out the forms of a pronoun, this is the form that it most commonly left out. (If I need a phone my friend will let me borrow theirs).
- Reflexive: Used when the subject and the direct object in a sentence are the same. In English, these pronouns always end with -self (singular) or -selves (plural). (They have to drive themself to school.)
In some pronoun sets two or more of these forms are the same. For example, in the he/him pronoun set the pronominal possessive and the predicative possessive forms are the same (his). In the she/her pronoun set the accusative and the pronominal possessive forms are the same (her). In the they/them set all five forms are different.
Since pronouns are commonly gendered, the pronouns one uses are often used as a way to identify the gender of a person. Because of this, using the wrong pronouns, intentionally or accidentally, is one of the most common forms of misgendering. Transgender individuals often change pronouns along with names as part of their transition.
Despite this, not everyone goes by pronouns that align with their gender. Pronouns are a form of gender expression and are related to one's gender in the same way clothing, hair, and other physical characteristics are related to one's gender. Pronouns may show a relation to one's gender, and comfort or discomfort with a given pronoun set may be an indication of one's gender, but pronouns do not have to correspond to one's gender. Some individuals are pronoun non-conforming as a form of gender non-conformity. Anyone of any gender can use any pronouns.
Some individuals may be comfortable going by multiple pronoun sets (multipronomial), while some individuals might not use any pronouns at all (nullpronomial). Some English speakers choose to go by pronouns that are not found in standard English, known as neopronouns, which includes but is not limited to nounself pronouns and emojiself pronouns. Some question their pronouns or are unsure of their pronouns at times (dubtiopronomial).
He/Him pronouns are typically, but not always, used by men, masculine-aligned individuals, or those who want to present masculinely. During the Middle English and Modern English periods a supposedly masculine personal pronoun (him) was considered gender neutral and said nothing about the gender or sex of the individual, however it later became more strongly associated with only men. In the 18th century, when prescriptive grammarians decided that singular "they" was no longer acceptable as a gender-neutral pronoun, they instead recommended "gender-neutral he" when referring to a generic person.
|Nominative||He||He went to the store.|
|Accusative||Him||I met him today.|
|Pronominal Possessive||His||He walked his dog today.|
|Predicative Possessive||His||If I need a phone my friend will let me borrow his.|
|Reflexive||Himself||He has to drive himself to school.|
She/Her pronouns are typically, but not always, used by women, feminine-aligned individuals, or those who want to present femininely. The pronoun "she", which first appears in the mid 12th century, and seems to have been created to reduce the increasing ambiguity of the pronoun system at the time. "She" is occasionally used as a generic gender neutral pronoun in place of "gender-neutral he" as a feminist statement against the bias towards seeing men as the default.
|Nominative||She||She went to the store.|
|Accusative||Her||I met her today.|
|Pronominal Possessive||Her||She walked her dog today.|
|Predicative Possessive||Hers||If I need a phone my friend will let me borrow hers.|
|Reflexive||Herself||She has to drive herself to school.|
The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular "they" back to 1375, and throughout the middle ages and renaissance it was used as a singular gender neutral pronoun, making it one of the oldest pronouns in the English language. However, in the 18th century prescriptive grammarians declared that "they" should only be used when referring to a group, and suggested using a "gender-neutral he" as an alternative. Reasons given for this are: 1) Latin did not have a singular, gender neutral pronoun, and since Latin was a more prestigious language, prescriptivists thought that English should be more like Latin. 2) When plural pronouns are used certain verbs change form (ie: "he was" vs "they were"). These verbs always change when "they" is used, even when used for an individual. This was an unacceptable inconsistency according to prescriptivists.
The idea that singular "they" is grammatically incorrect continues to the modern day, although it is not strictly followed in normal speech. Most individuals will use "they" when referring to an unknown individual without realizing it. In the modern day singular "they" is often used by the non-binary community as a gender neutral pronoun. They/Them pronouns are typically, but not always, used by those who want to present in a gender neutral way or otherwise don't want to present masculinity or femininely.
|Nominative||They||They went to the store.|
|Accusative||Them||I met them today.|
|Pronominal Possessive||Their||They walked their dog today.|
|Predicative Possessive||Theirs||If I need a phone my friend will let me borrow theirs.|
|Reflexive||Themself or Themselves||They have to drive themself to school. OR They have to drive themselves to school.|
In English reflexive pronouns either end with -self when singular and -selves when plural. Before the campaign against singular "they" the word "themself" was used when referring to an individual, while "themselves" was used for a group. Since the singular form was deemed to be "incorrect" the word themself is often considered to not be a word, with the correct version being themselves. Currently, either themself or themselves may be used when using singular "they".
The pronoun "it" is traditionally used for inanimate objects, and occasionally for animals or babies. Some use it/its pronouns as a gender neutral pronoun, however "it" should only be used for someone if said someone confirms it's okay to do so, as to do otherwise is degrading.
The usage of it/its pronouns is sometimes considered an example of neopronouns, because, despite being a naturally occurring pronoun in English, it's not the traditional usage of the pronoun when used for an animate being.
|Nominative||It||It went to the store.|
|Accusative||It||I met it today.|
|Pronominal Possessive||Its||It walked its dog today.|
|Predicative Possessive||Its||If I need a phone my friend will let me borrow its.|
|Reflexive||Itself||It has to drive itself to school.|
The pronoun "one" is the formal indefinite third person pronoun. It is sometimes called a fourth person pronoun, although fourth person pronouns do not technically exist in English. It is used to refer to a hypothetical individual or to everyone in general. It is typically only used in formal writing. Occasionally, individuals use one/ones pronouns as a gender neutral pronoun.
The usage of one/ones pronouns by someone is occasionally considered an example of neopronouns because, despite being a naturally occurring pronoun in English, it is not the traditional usage of the pronoun when used for a specific individual.
|Nominative||One||One went to the store.|
|Accusative||One||I met one today.|
|Pronominal Possessive||One's||One walked one's dog today.|
|Predicative Possessive||One's||If I need a phone my friend will let me borrow one's.|
|Reflexive||Oneself||One has to drive oneself to school.|
The they/them, he/him, she/her pronoun user flags were created by Tumblr user love-all-around1223 on April 14, 2018. The one/ones flag was created by Tumblr user mourningmogaicrew on June 20th, 2021.
- Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.