Becoming a pronoun-pro

By bogotapost February 28, 2015

English PronounsRobin Davies looks at the principal problems of using pronouns in English

Take a look at this short classroom story:

“Once, a student of mine asked me for my own definition of a pronoun. I gave myself a few moments to think about this question, then I told her that they are words which we can use to substitute for a noun or noun phrase.”

There are 11 pronouns in just these two sentences. This shows that they are both useful and used often, so it is important to learn them correctly from the beginning. In addition, the pronouns above have a range of uses (you can see subject, object, possessive, reflexive, demonstrative and relative pronouns!).

The final difficulty is that they change form according to number (myself, themselves), gender (he, she), person (I, she) and case (she, her).

Therefore, it’s no surprise that pronouns can cause many problems. In order to help you better understand this difficult area of English, let´s take a look at some of the key differences in the use of certain pronouns in Spanish and English:

Personal Pronouns

Personal pronouns can have a subject and an object form. As you can see from the table below, only you and it have the same word form when they are the subject or object of a sentence. A useful acronym you can use to help you remember the basic word order of personal pronouns is:

S-V-O (Subject-Verb-Object)
e.g. I love you

Unlike Spanish, we do not normally omit personal pronouns in English unless we are giving orders (Close the door!) and advice (Start going to the gym), or making suggestions (Try a smaller size):

It’s cold outside. (NOT Is cold outside)

He’s an English teacher. (NOT Is an English teacher)

However, don’t become too obsessed with using subject pronouns or you could start making mistakes like these:

The teacher he gives interesting lessons. (Instead of: The teacher gives interesting lessons.)

It is difficult the situation. (Instead of: The situation is difficult.)

Remember: one subject is sufficient!

In addition, the pronoun It sometimes adds no meaning at all to a sentence, but it is required as a subject pronoun because the sentence would be ungrammatical without It (remember the S-V-O rule!). This is especially the case with expressions referring to time, weather, temperature and distances:

It’s sunny today. (NOT is sunny)

It was 14 degrees in Bogotá this morning.

It’s six o´clock.

It’s 5km to the nearest bank.

Possessive Pronouns

Spanish uses the single word su for the English possessive pronouns his / her/ their/ your (formal). This can lead to errors like:

I have a daughter. His name is Juliana.

Spanish also uses ‘the’ with parts of the body in combination with a reflexive pronoun while we need a possessive pronoun in English:

Me lastimé la pierna = I hurt my arm.  (NOT I hurt myself the arm)

Reflexive Pronouns

There are many verbs in Spanish which require a reflexive pronoun (myself, himself, yourself etc.). This is often not the case in English:

Please, stop worrying! = Por favor, deja de preocuparte!

He complained about the food. = El se quejó de la comida.

Furthermore, in English there is a clear distinction between the reflexive pronouns themselves and each other, but in Spanish, more clarification is needed:

They looked at themselves in the mirror (Each of them looked at him/herself) = Ellos se miraron en el espejo

They looked at each other in the mirror (Each of them looked at the other person) = Ellos se miraron mutuamente en el espejo

Relative Pronouns

Unlike in Spanish, in English, there is a distinction between personal and non-personal pronouns:

The child who broke the window = El niño que rompió la ventana

It´s a song which brings back happy memories = Es una cancion que me trae buenos recuerdos

Also, relative pronouns can never be deleted in Spanish, which means that English sentences with no relative pronoun can be difficult to understand for Spanish learners:

She’s the woman I met at the party last night = Ella es la mujer que conocí en la fiesta de anoche

As you can see, these problematic little words present many challenges, and this article does not address them all. Perhaps you can think of some other pronoun-related difficulties which you’ve had. If so, send me an email ([email protected]) and share your language learning experience with me, myself and I!

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Robin Davies is an experienced English language teacher at the Externado University. He has been living in Colombia for 5 years.