What Is a Singular Pronoun?

G. Wiesen

A singular pronoun is a word that takes the place or refers to a noun in a sentence that is singular. This means that a noun such as “cat” or “table” can be replaced with singular pronouns such as “he” or “it.” In contrast to this, plural pronouns are typically used to refer to nouns that are also in a plural form such as the noun “brothers” being replaced by “them.” There is no singular pronoun in English for a person of indeterminate or neutral gender, which often creates issues in formal works for many writers.

The word "boy" may be replaced with the singular pronoun of "he."
The word "boy" may be replaced with the singular pronoun of "he."

The basic function of a singular pronoun is quite simple, as it is just a pronoun that replaces a noun in the singular form. Pronouns, in general, are used in a sentence to refer to or in the place of a noun, which is called the antecedent. A sentence such as “That is my cat, my cat is quite friendly,” is grammatically accurate but repetitive and reads and sounds rather strange. The noun phrase “my cat” can be replaced by a singular pronoun, either “he” or “she” depending on the cat’s gender. “That is my cat, he is quite friendly,” is less repetitive and seems more natural.

"It" in reference to a cat is an example of a singular pronoun.
"It" in reference to a cat is an example of a singular pronoun.

There are also plural pronouns that can be used in much the same way as a singular pronoun, to refer to an antecedent that is plural in nature. The sentence “My keys are on that table, please hand me my keys” has the same problem with repetition as the previous example. This can be simplified through the use of a plural pronoun to change the sentence to “My keys are on that table, please hand me them,” in which “them” is a plural pronoun. Unlike the use of a singular pronoun, the plural forms do not indicate gender and so can be used more easily.

The importance of gender in the use of a singular pronoun in English has created something of a grammatical problem. There is no gender-neutral singular form of pronoun for reference to a person in English. “I,” “me,” and “my” can be used for first person singular forms, and “you” and “your” are used for second person forms. A singular pronoun in third person, however, is limited to either “he,” “she,” or “it.”

This lack of a gender-neutral pronoun has led to some confusion and frustration among writers, since “it” is generally considered inappropriate in reference to a person. In formal settings, many writers use the phrase “he or she” or “his or her” to refer to someone of unknown or indistinct gender. The plural pronoun “they” is often used for informal contexts such as “When we find the person who wrote this note, they are in big trouble.” It is often best for a writer to simply avoid the problem and restructure a sentence to eliminate the need for a pronoun such as “The writer of this note is in big trouble.”

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