by Marc Anderson

Pronoun Perfection – ESL Language Learning

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In the next series of articles, I would like to review certain parts of speech that may be troublesome for English speakers. In interviewing some of my adult ESL students who I teach online, they suggested this would be helpful to them. First, they wanted some clarification on pronouns. You know different types and when to use them. In some languages, pronouns don’t exist which can be all the more confusing when trying to learn pronouns as an ESL student.

So let’s begin. Pronouns take the place of a noun in a sentence. There are several kinds of pronouns to include: indefinite, personal, relative, interrogative, demonstrative, intensive and reflexive. These pronouns have what is known as a “case”, a form change that denotes the relation of a noun or a pronoun to other words in the sentence. So this article will also talk about the nominative or subjective case, the accusative or objective case, and the genitive or possessive case.

The important thing is not so much that you know the types of pronouns and the cases by their formal names, but that you can use pronouns correctly in your written language and in your oral speech, and that you can understand what others are saying to you when they use any number of pronouns in any type of formal or informal conversation. As you practice using pronouns more in your written language and in your day-to-day speech, you will be able to “hear” how certain pronouns “just sound right”. Maybe this has happened to you before. Then you know what I mean. This internal gauge tells you what is right… thus taking you one step closer to your English language fluency. Even for native born speakers, some of these more technical, distinguishing features of pronouns are difficult to understand.

It might be helpful for you to skim this article and concentrate on the areas that you feel you might need more understanding of or assistance with in the English language at the present time. As you acquire more English skills, you can add other sections or review this article in its entirety. The proper use of pronouns will make more sense. Okay then. Looks look at different types of pronouns in the English language and some of these more formal terms of how pronouns are classified.

  1. Indefinite Pronouns include such words as several, many, everyone, anyone, someone, somebody, something, either, all and each. By looking at these words, can you tell what indefinite pronouns have in common? If you guessed that they are words that lack a specific meaning, you’re correct!

These words refer to an unspecified person or thing. For example, if you say Several friends are meeting at Starbucks to have coffee and chat, the listener would not know exactly who you are referring to or how many friends there are who are going to meet for coffee.

Some of these indefinite pronouns form the possessive case and use an apostrophe to show ownership (i.e. anyone’s or somebody else’s). Again, the pronoun is not precise and you do not know exactly who is being referenced in written or oral language.

  1. Personal Pronouns include first person pronouns – the person speaking (i.e. singular I, my, mine and me; plural we, our, ours and us); second person pronouns – the person being addressed (i.e. singular you, your, yours, you; plural you, your, yours, you); and third person pronouns – the person, place or thing spoken or written about (i.e. singular he, his him, she, her, hers, her, it, its, it; plural they, their, theirs, them).

Look at how some of these personal pronouns are used. Let’s take an example of exercising. When you say, I am going to exercise then you are the one speaking and you are the one who plans to exercise. If you say, You are going to exercise, then this refers to the person you are talking to. Good for you!  You are going to exercise! When you say, He is going to exercise then you are talking about someone else who is going to exercise. You are talking to someone about this other person. Good for him!  He is going to exercise!

  1. Relative Pronouns consist of sentences that are embedded inside another sentence that consist of a clause. Then the relative pronoun replaces the repeated noun to make the new sentence. For example, Meryl Streep, who is one of the greatest actresses, should win the Oscar. The sentence who is one of the greatest actresses is embedded in the sentence Meryl Streep should win the Oscar. The words who, whom, whose and that are used to refer to people like in the example sentence. Meryl Streep is referred to as who.

The words which and that are used to refer to things. (Example: The present, that I brought yesterday, is for my friend’s surprise birthday party.) In this sentence the word that is used to refer to present and the clause that I brought yesterday relates then to the word present, too. Notice that this clause is separated by commas.

When you can take the clause out, the sentence should still make sense as in the above example using relative pronouns: Meryl Street should win the Oscar and The present is for my friend’s surprise birthday party. That’s one way to check to make sure the sentences are grammatically correct. Just take the clause out and if the sentence reads fluently, then it is correct.

  1. Interrogative Pronouns are the words that introduce questions. Who, whom, whose, which, and what are examples of interrogative pronouns. Who, whom and whose are used to refer to a person; what is used to refer to something that is not human; which can be used for both people and things.  For example, Who is the President (person)? What was she carrying in her purse (thing)? Which of the computers is new (thing)? or Which of the men is your boyfriend (person)?
  2. Demonstrative Pronouns show nearness to or distance from the speaker. These pronouns include this, these, that, and those as in the sentence examples: This is my favorite lake; These are my favorite candies to eat at the holidays; That is my grandfather’s new house; Those basketball shoes are not yours!

When demonstrative pronouns are placed directly in front of nouns, then they function as adjectives. Demonstrative pronouns can be seen in these examples: This clock does not work; These shoes are too small; That cheesecake is certainly my favorite; Those cars on the dealership lot sure look great! Notice the nouns after each demonstrative pronoun which function as adjectives: these shoes, that cheesecake, and those cars.

  1. Intensive and Reflexive Pronouns are easy to recognize as they end with self or selves (myself, himself, herself, ourselves, itself, themselves, etc.) These types of pronouns often refer back to the noun for emphasis like in the sentence: Mr. Jones himself was a great boss. In this example, the pronoun himself refers back to Mr. Jones.

Another function of these pronouns is to refer back to the subject that may be a different part of speech other than a noun, but it functions as the subject of the sentence. (Example:  I wanted to pick apples myself.)  In this sentence the word myself repeats the subject I, but the word myself functions as an object of the sentence. 

  1. The Nominative or Subjective Case is used in four distinct ways.  The first is to express a subject (John and I are going to the dance; I don’t know who is going to be there; Give the phone to whoever comes.) In the first sentence the pronoun I is the subject of the sentence with “John”. It is never acceptable English to say Me and John or John and me. In the second example, who is the subject of “going”. In the final example, whoever is the subject of “comes”.

The nominative or subjective case can also be used to repeat the subject (Two of the professors are retiring Dr. Richard Jones and Dr. Marin Kelley). The subject “professors” is repeated by naming the professors, Dr. Richard Jones and Dr. Marin Kelley. This repeated structure in a sentence like this is called an appositive. An appositive is usually set off with a set of commas if it is within the sentence (My father, the owner of that company, gave several graduates a job right out of college; or in the example case where the repetition is at the end of the sentence, a dash is used.

The third way is to express the subject when the verb is omitted. (Example: She is a kinder person than he (the verb is omitted) or The music teacher plays as well as she (again the verb is omitted). The last reason is after the verb “be”. (It was they who gave the money to charity. There is someone at the door; it must be he. It is I. I shouldn’t mind to be she).  You will often hear the objective form of the pronoun used instead as in the following: It was them who gave the money to charity. There is someone at the door; it must be him. I shouldn’t mind to be her. However this is technically grammatically incorrect.

  1. The Accusative or Objective Case uses the pronoun forms me, us, her, him, them, whom and whomever. This case is used four different ways: 1) to express the object of a verb, verbal or preposition as in the sentences My sister sat between Joel and me; Whom were you talking about? (Although in speaking, the word who is becoming acceptable); and Give the letter to whomever comes to the door. (Again in speaking, whoever is becoming acceptable in this context).

The second way is to repeat the object as in The doctor helped two people in my family: my mother and me; and Some of us kids wanted to eat the watermelon.

A third way is to express the object when the verb is omitted: My professor did not recommend her as highly as he did me or My professor did not recommend her as highly as me.

The final way is to express the nominal (a phrase that can function as the subject or object of a verb but it is not a noun) before the infinitive (a basic form of the verb) as in We did not want him to suffer any longer; and The idea was for her to give more to the organization.   

  1. The Genitive or Possessive Case uses two sets of pronoun forms. The first set functions as noun modifiers and are called possessives like his way or my husband. These include the words my, our, your, her, his, its, their, and whose. The use of these possessives determines possession or connection as in Whose computer is that? Possessives also function to introduce phrases or to express the performer of an action as in His leaving for the army worried his mother. There are a few exceptions to this rule.

The second set functions as nominal and are called independent possessives. These include the words mine, ours, yours, hers, his, its, theirs, and whose. As nominals, they function as nouns do. (I wonder whose this is, not I wonder who’s this? His was an interesting personality as his is the subject of the verb was. Thomas is a friend of Dad’s and mine, as Dad’s and “mine” are the objects of the preposition “of”.)


Pronouns, words that take the place of nouns, are used often in the English language. With continued practice and concentration on this part of speech, you will sharpen your English language ability. You will speak English and write English with more confidence and accuracy.

I know that you can do it. Keep up the great work! And remember, if you have any questions or comments about this article or learning English, send them my way. I would be glad to help in any way I can.

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.