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What Is a Personal Pronoun?

Some writers and editors object to the use of "they" as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.
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  • Written By: J.E. Holloway
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 11 February 2015
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A personal pronoun is a word that stands in for a proper noun when referring to a person. Examples of personal pronouns include "I," "she," and "they." Some form of personal pronouns appears in every language, although different languages make use of them differently.

In English, there are several main forms of personal pronouns. Each pronoun may be first-person, such as "I" or "me," second-person, such as "you," or third-person, such as "she" or "he." In addition, each pronoun has a number, and some have gender. "I" is singular, while "we" is plural, and "he" is masculine while "she" is feminine. Only third-person pronouns have gender; first- and second-person personal pronouns are genderless.

A personal pronoun not only has person, number, and sometimes gender, but also case. English nouns in general do not have cases, but a personal pronoun changes its form depending on the role it plays in the sentence. For instance, the first person singular pronoun is "I" if the speaker is the subject of the sentence, but "me" if the speaker is the object. Similarly, "she" and "he" are the subjects of sentences, while the objects are "him" and "her." These pronouns also have reflexive forms, which are used if the speaker is both the subject and the object of the phrase, as in the sentence "I was talking to myself."

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Many languages have personal pronouns which distinguish between the singular and plural in the second person. This is the case in French, where "toi" is singular and "vous" is plural, although "vous" can also be a formal mode of address. Although English lacks this distinction, it exists in a number of English dialects. For instance, Southern American English speakers sometimes use "y'all" as an informal second person plural pronoun, while Irish English and a number of American dialects have "youse," which serves the same function.

No personal pronoun is more controversial than "they." Although "they" is primarily the third person plural, speakers sometimes use it as a pronoun in cases when the number or gender of persons is unknown. Even when "they" is referring to a single individual, it is still treated as plural and causes verbs to take plural forms. This usage has a long history, but some writers on grammar object to it because of the way in which it uses a plural pronoun to refer to a singular subject. Suggested alternatives include "he or she" as well as neologisms such as "sie."

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Rotergirl
Post 2

@Pippinwhite -- Re "Schoolhouse Rock" -- I thought the same thing! That may be our age telling on us, you know.

My daughter had a terrible time with personal pronouns and subject-verb agreement. She used "is" for everything, no matter what the pronoun was. She was probably nine or ten before she finally got it straight in her head which pronouns went with what verb. Her teacher said it could have been a processing issue, since my husband and I worked to teach her correctly, and we make a point of using correct grammar, since so much of what you know about grammar comes by hearing it spoken. Which, going back to "Schoolhouse Rock," may be the reason it was so effective at teaching.

Pippinwhite
Post 1

So, instead of saying "Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla," we say "he." Had to throw that "Schoolhouse Rock" reference in.

When I took "basic grammar" (nothing basic about it!) in college, we spent the first four weeks of class on the parts of speech. Three of those classes were spent on pronouns. That was the largest chapter in the book! Who knew there was so much to learn about pronouns! Part of it was because pronouns have changed so much over the centuries, and because English has borrowed from every language, including pronouns and verbs. We also rarely drop our pronouns, allowing the verbs to imply which pronoun is being used. You hear that in Spanish all the time, but rarely in English.

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