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 person or people speaking (first person), the person or people being spoken to (second person), or other people or things (third person). In many languages, including English, third person personal pronouns are gendered.
In English all pronouns have five grammatical form. The forms are:
- Nominative: Used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence.
- Accusative: Used when the pronoun is the object of the sentence.
- Pronominal Possessive: Used to show possession of a noun. They function as part of a noun phrase, and always come directly before the noun in question.
- Predicative Possessive: Used to show possession of a noun. They come directly after a linking verb (the word "be" or one of its other forms). This is the least common pronoun form, as it requires a very specific sentence construction. When listing out the forms of a pronoun, this is the form that it most commonly left out.
- 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).
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 identity 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 people often change pronouns along with names as part of their transition. Despite this, not all people go by pronouns that align with their gender. Pronouns are a form of gender expression. Some gender non-conforming people choose to also be pronoun non-conforming.
Some people may be comfortable going my multiple pronoun sets (multipronoun), while some people might not use any pronouns at all (nullpronoun). Some English speakers choose to go by pronouns that are not found in standard English, known as neopronouns, with includes nounself pronouns and emojiself pronouns.
He/Him pronouns are typically, but not always, used by men, masculine-aligned people, or people who want to present masculinely. In the eighteenth century, when prescriptive grammarians decided that singular they was no longer acceptable as a gender-neutral pronoun, they instead recommended "gender-neutral he." Examples:
- Nominative: He (He went to the store.)
- Accusative: Him (I met him today.)
- Pronominal possessive: His (If he does not get a haircut, his hair grows long.)
- 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 people, or people who want to present femininely. Examples:
- Nominative: She (She went to the store.)
- Accusative: Her (I met her today.)
- Pronominal possessive: Her (If she does not get a haircut, her hair grows long.)
- 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 multiple people, and suggested using a "gender-neutral he" as an alternative. This is due to the fact that Latin did not have a singular, gender neutral pronoun, and since Latin was a more prestigious language, prescriptive decided that English should be more like Latin.
The idea that singular they is grammatically incorrect continued to the modern day, although it is not strictly followed in normal speech, as most people will use "they" when referring to an unknown person without realizing. In the modern day singular they is often used by non-binary people as a gender neutral pronoun.
- Nominative: They (They went to the store.)
- Accusative: Them (I met them today.)
- Pronominal possessive: Their (If they do not get a haircut, their hair grows long.)
- 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.)
The reflexive form of them is typically sighted as "themselves", though some people choose to say "themself" when using the singular form, making the same singular-plural distinction as seen in "yourself" and "yourselves". In the modern day the word "themself" is often considered to not be a proper word, though this is often due the belief that "they" can only be used as a plural pronoun.
The pronoun "it" is traditionally used for inanimate objects, and occasionally for animals. Some people use it/its pronouns as a gender neutral pronoun, however this "it" should only be used for a person if they say it's okay to do so, as to do otherwise is dehumanizing.
The usage of it/its pronouns by a person 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.
- Nominative: It (It went to the store.)
- Accusative: It (I met it today.)
- Pronominal possessive: Its (If it does not get a haircut, its hair grows long.)
- 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 exist in English. It is used to refer to a hypothetical person or to people in general. It is typically only used in formal writing. Occasionally, some people use one/ones pronouns as a gender neutral pronoun.
The usage of one/ones pronouns by a person 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.
- Nominative: One (One went to the store.)
- Accusative: One (I met one today.)
- Pronominal possessive: One's (If one does not get a haircut, one's hair grows long.)
- 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.
- Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.