In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pronouns

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Diachronic
  • Agreement Contrasted to Pronouns
  • Typological-Quantitative
  • Typological-Descriptive
  • Syntax
  • Morphology
  • Semantics
  • Pragmatics
  • Anaphora and Obviation
  • Null Pronouns
  • Acquisition and Retention

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Linguistics Pronouns
Elly van Gelderen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0143


The word “pronoun” can refer to many things; its name suggests that it stands for or refers to another noun. Personal, reflexive, reciprocal, relative, and indefinite pronouns indeed replace nouns, or more accurately noun phrases (NPs) or determiner phrases (DPs). Possessive, demonstrative, and interrogative pronouns can either refer to an NP or DP on their own or modify a noun to form part of a DP, and are then referred to as determiners. There are also “preforms” that stand for a prepositional phrase, adjective phrase, and verb phrase; the proforms will not be discussed here. From a diachronic perspective, there are many generalities in how pronouns arise. Thus, third-person personal pronouns often develop from demonstratives, and reflexives develop from nouns related to “person” or “self.” Since a pronoun is not stable diachronically, languages vary between whether pronouns are arguments, topics, or agreement and whether they are pronouns, clitics, or affixes. Cross-linguistic studies show that (subject) agreement is more frequent than pronouns and it is therefore important to consider the status of this (pronominal) agreement as opposed to full pronouns. If a pronoun stands for a noun phrase, the question arises as to what its syntactic category is, i.e., is it a D with an empty noun or a DP/NP? The answer is that it varies cross-linguistically. Pronouns can be specialized for the person, number, and gender of the referent and are, in many languages, marked by case for its grammatical function and for level of formality. Looking from a typological perspective, it is obvious that these marking are not arbitrary; for instance, third person pronouns are more likely to indicate gender. Pronouns can mark politeness and inclusiveness and exclusiveness of the addressee. The syntax and morphology of pronouns centers around the question if they are a D or a DP or somewhere in between. This question is obviously related to their status as full argument or as agreement marker. Languages also differ as to what features are encoded and how. The pragmatics and semantics of pronouns are also complex. In many languages, the topicality of the noun phrase is marked by the use of a full nominal, a pronoun, or a zero form. For instance, a pronoun may be left out (pro-drop in Romance) when the noun phrase referred to is highly topical and an emphatic pronoun is used when the topic is switched. Finally, references on acquisition and retention have been provided.

General Overviews

The citations in this section consist of works that define the category and describe the various instantiations of pronouns. Siewierska 2004 is the most insightful on how person is expressed, and the author treats first, second, and third person the same. Corbett 2000 focuses on one of the features that are central to pronouns, namely number. Bhat 2004 is frequently quoted and appears in the well-known Oxford typological series, and it can be construed as an idiosyncratic view of pronouns. Huddleston and Pullum 2002 is a massive grammar and a starting point for the terminology and classification of pronouns, but it can also be idiosyncratic. For instance, the authors explain that the term “determiner” indicates the function inside the NP and determinative the category associated with the determiner function. The authors propose a determinative phrase, named DP by them, which is of course easily confused with the generative D(eterminer) Phrase. Ghomeshi, et al. 2009 provides a welcome clarification on the category of determiner and what various languages have in common. Wales 1996 also offers insight into terminological matters. Howe 1996 provides case studies from the Germanic languages on what pronouns do, and Lyons 1999 treats definiteness as it relates to pronouns and demonstratives.

  • Bhat, D. N. S. 2004. Pronouns. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Based on data from 225 languages, pronouns are divided into personal pronouns (mainly first and second person—third person only in some languages) and proforms (words made up of distinct functions and scopes, such as demonstratives and third person pronouns in most languages).

  • Corbett, Greville. 2000. Number. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164344

    This textbook describes the different types of number (dual, paucal, etc.), the relation to animacy, agreement patterns, and the use in the honorific system, and of verbal number.

  • Ghomeshi, Jila, Ileana Paul, and Martina Wiltschko, eds. 2009. Determiners: Universals and variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Collection of seven papers and an introduction on the form and function of determiners from a cross-linguistic perspective. Data are drawn from lesscommonly discussed languages (e.g., those of North America).

  • Howe, Stephen. 1996. The personal pronoun in Germanic languages. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110819205

    This data-rich book discusses commonalities among Germanic pronouns and has detailed descriptions of pronouns in Old and Middle English, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Yiddish, and the Scandinavian languages.

  • Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey Pullum. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This grammar contains two chapters that are relevant to pronouns, namely Section 10 of the chapter on the terminology of the various elements of the NP (chapter 5) and Sections 2 through 5 of the chapter about deixis and anaphora (chapter 17). These sections provide a good descriptive start.

  • Lyons, Christopher. 1999. Definiteness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511605789

    A textbook that discusses definites, indefinites, demonstratives, and the diachrony of definiteness as a cycle.

  • Siewierska, Anna. 2004. Person. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511812729

    A textbook that focuses on personal pronouns and, in particular, how person is expressed from a typological, syntactic, morphological, and diachronic point of view.

  • Wales, Katie. 1996. Personal pronouns in present-day English. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Description of personal, generic, and reflexive pronouns in contemporary English and the difficulties to clearly separate them. It includes a discussion of some of the prescriptive debates.

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