Quick and dirty guide to my pronouns and a grammar lesson, since Pronoun Island was killed by Heroku.




Grammar and linguistics

What are pronouns?

Pronouns are used to stand in for nouns or noun phrases, e.g., who, those, you, I, anybody, no one, etc. Personal pronouns are associated with a specific person, e.g., first person (I, we, us, etc.) second person (you, yourself, yours, etc.) and third person (he, itself, their, etc.). When you are alone and conversing with a person, the personal pronouns you use will mostly be first and second person pronouns, of which the standard English ones are not gendered. When you are conversing with someone and referring to someone else (who may or may not be present), you generally use a name or a third person pronoun. The standard English ones you are definitely familiar with using for people are he/him and she/her, although more exist and are in use.

Just like when people tell you their name in an introduction, presentation, email signature, profile or internet handle, so that you can refer to them using that information regardless of whether they are present, listing third person pronouns in these spaces generally indicates that they would like you to refer to them using those pronouns.

What are all the ingredients I need in order to use a set of pronouns?

To properly use a set of pronouns for someone, you need to know its complete "declension" or all the different forms of a pronoun, depending on the grammatic role it is playing in a sentence. In English there are five forms - the subject, the object, the dependent possessive, the independent possessive, and the reflexive. The five forms of he are: he, him, his, his and himself. Similarly, the full declension of xe is: xe, xem, xyr, xyrs and xyrself.

Often rather than giving the entire declension of a particular pronoun set, we tend to use shortened versions - for example, you might see she/her, she/hers or she/her/hers, rather than she/her/her/hers/herself since there is some repetition and some forms can be inferred from other forms. In the case of pronouns that are less familiar to you, you may need more information on the full declension in which case you can use your favourite search engine to find out, or ask the person.

Another piece of information that is important especially with English pronoun sets that may be less familiar to you is whether it takes singular or plural agreement with verbs. This is the difference between saying He is a student and Ey are a student.

Isn't "they" only for multiple people?

Nope. Singular they exists too, and you are probably already familiar with using generic singular they, e.g., in the sentence Someone left their keys in the kitchen. This use of they refers to a single person who is unspecified and generic, sometimes even unknown. You might be less familiar with singular specific they, e.g., Vagrant left their keys in the kitchen, but that can be learned.

Aren't pronouns unchangeable? Aren't they a closed class of words that cannot be added to?

All language is productive and ever-changing, thanks to the creativity of its users. There are pronouns that were once part of standardized English but no longer are (e.g., thou, thee). Conversely, the pronoun you was plural before it was singular. Swedish now has a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun that was first proposed by a linguist less than 60 years ago. So it is not true that pronouns are a class of words that can never be changed.

Pronouns in English are often described as a closed class, i.e., a class that does not easily acquire new members. Anecdotally, this is clearly not the case in many English language communities I am part of. There is also evidence that English pronouns are shifting to an open class category, like they are in Japanese.