More on Personal Pronouns

This week we’ll move beyond the basics and cover additional ways that personal pronouns can be used in English.


Using Personal Pronouns with Generic Nouns, Indefinite Pronouns, and Collective Nouns

Agreement with Generic Nouns

A generic noun represents a whole group. It does not refer to any particular person, place, or thing:


A driver should always check his blind spots before changing lanes.


A driver should always check his or her blind spots before changing lanes.

“A driver” refers to anyone who is currently behind the wheel of a vehicle. A singular masculine pronoun was long considered the “correct” pronoun choice to use when referring to a singular generic noun (as in the first example.) However, using both a singular masculine and a singular feminine pronoun (as in the second example) is now more common. This second usage is considered more inclusive.


You can avoid many of the problems associated with choosing a masculine and/or feminine pronoun by simply using a plural generic noun with a plural pronoun:


Drivers should always check their blind spots before changing lanes.


Agreement with Indefinite Pronouns

Like generic nouns, indefinite pronouns do not refer to a particular person, place, or thing. They are intentionally vague. Many native English speakers use a plural personal pronoun to refer to an indefinite pronoun:


Everyone is entitled to their own opinions.


This is generally considered acceptable in casual conversation and informal writing but not in formal writing. When writing a formal document, you should use a singular pronoun:


Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions.


Agreement with Collective Nouns

Collective nouns refer to entire groups. Whether you should use a singular or a plural pronoun with a collective noun depends on whether you are using that noun to refer to a single, impersonal unit or a collection of various individuals.


As a single unit:

The federal government is massive. It contains countless departments and sub-departments.

As a collection of individuals:

My team is extremely caring and supportive. They are always willing to help one another.


Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive pronouns are used as the object of a verb or preposition when the subject and object of the sentence are the same person. The singular reflexive pronouns are myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, and oneself. The plurals are ourselves, yourselves, and themselves:


After the accident, she doubted herself for a long time.

We often see ourselves in the faces of our children.


“She” and “herself” refer to the same person in the first example. “We” and “ourselves” refer to the same collective sense of “us” in the second example.


You can also use reflexive pronouns to add emphasis. These emphatic reflexive pronouns can immediately follow a noun or pronoun (the first example) or can come at the end of a clause (the second example):


I myself designed the new addition to the house.

I designed the new addition to the house myself.


Finally, note that the expression by + reflexive pronoun has the same meaning as the word “alone.”


Robbie went to the concert alone.

Robbie went to the concert by himself.


You, One, and They as Impersonal Pronouns

Counter intuitively, the personal pronouns you and one can also be used impersonally to refer to people in general. The English Island blog, for example, frequently uses you in a way that means “any person who is reading this right now”:


You should always look both ways before crossing the street.

How does one go about starting a business?


The impersonal one is much more formal than the impersonal you. One used to be preferred in formal writing, but has largely fallen out of favor due to the perception that it makes one’s writing appear overly cold and distant. You, on the other hand, implies a closer relationship between the author and the reader. Whether you choose to use you or one in your own writing, make sure that you do not switch between the two of them within the same sentence.


They can also be used as an impersonal pronoun to refer to people in general or an undefined group of people. However, the impersonal they is extremely vague because it has no stated antecedent. This makes it too imprecise for formal writing, even when the context implies an antecedent. Thus you should only use the impersonal they in spoken English or very informal writing:


Retail is a seasonal industry. They do most of their business around the holidays.


“They” could refer to retail stores or the people who work for them. The lack of an antecedent allows room for multiple interpretations.


Forms of Other

Other and another can be used as either adjectives or pronouns. Whether they function as adjectives or pronouns depends on the inclusion or exclusion of a noun:


Singular adjective:                                          Plural adjective:

another [singular noun] (is)                          other [plural noun] (are)

the other [singular noun] (is)                       the other [plural noun] (are)


Singular pronoun:                                          Plural pronoun:

another (is)                                                    others (are)

the other (is)                                                  the others (are)


Note that another is always singular, regardless of whether it is being used as an adjective or pronoun. Also note that a final –s is added to other only when it is being used as a plural pronoun.