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Pronouns are little words that serve a very important function. A pronoun is a word that can stand in place of a noun. For example, in the sentence, ‘When I met Jane, she was working at a café in Covent Garden’, the word ‘she’ stands for the proper noun ‘Jane’, thus avoiding having to repeat the same word twice in the same sentence.

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In English, verbs must always have either a noun or pronoun as the subject. This is very different from some other languages, where the more developed system of verb terminations means it is usually obvious who or what we are talking about from the form of the verb and we therefore don’t generally need any additional word. In English, if you remove the pronouns, the sentence is often very difficult to understand. We must always say, ‘Although Henry was born in South Africa, he now lives in Australia’ rather than ‘Although Henry was born in South Africa, now lives in Australia’.

There are many different types of pronouns in English. For example, there are personal pronouns which are made up of two main groups: subject pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, one, we, you (pl.) and they) and object pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, one, us, you (pl.) and them). As you can see, some of the personal pronouns are the same in the nominative and accusative form: others change completely. If you confuse subject and object pronouns, the sentence can sound quite odd e.g. ‘Me went to France last summer’ rather than ‘I went to France last summer’ or ‘We helped they,’ instead of ‘We helped them’.

One problem with pronouns is translating a polite second person pronoun like «usted» or «vous» from another language. Sometimes students assume that the third person singular is the equivalent of a ‘polite’ second person form: this is incorrect. «Can I help him, sir?» can only refer to another person, never to the person that you are addressing. If you want to use a similar level of polite language, you need to use other indicators, such as changing the verb form into a conditional tense (i.e. ‘could’ instead of ‘can’) for example; ‘Could I help you, sir?’.

Possessive pronouns are words that replace a noun phrase such as ‘my car’, ‘his hat’ or ‘their house’. The possessive pronouns to replace these noun phrases would be ‘mine’, ‘his’ and ‘theirs’ respectively. You cannot say, «This car is my»; it is necessary to say «This car is mine».

A relative pronoun is a pronoun used to connect a noun to a relative clause, giving additional information. For example, «The boy who got the top marks in the class was given a prize by the teacher,» or «The ancient city that they found under the sea was remarkably well preserved». This is a case where, unlike with personal pronouns, relative pronouns can sometimes be left out, when the relative pronoun is the object of the verb in the clause, as opposed to the subject. Therefore we can say either «The ancient city that they found» or «The ancient city they found». We cannot however say «The boy got the top marks in the class was given a prize,»; as the word ‘boy’ is the subject of the verb in the clause, it is necessary to include a relative pronoun in this case, and it cannot be omitted.

J. Crowley

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Joe Crowley
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