Pronouns are used in place of nouns. Instead of saying:

  • John went to John’s mother’s house with John’s brother and John’s wife to see John’s grandparents.

we say:

  • John went to his mother’s house with his brother and his wife.

If we continued telling the story we could then say:

  • He went with them and saw them there.

Words like you, him, they, our, etc. are called pronouns. All languages use pronouns, but often they use them differently to how they’re used in English.

It’s helpful to use different terms to identify these pronouns, rather than just using English words. The following chart lays out the English pronoun system, which distinguishes by person (1st, 2nd, 3rd), number (singular, plural) and case ( subject object possessive reflexive ).

The ‘first’ person is the person who is speaking – in English ‘I’ or ‘me’ (1sg), or in plural form ‘we’ or ‘us’ (1pl).

The ‘second’ person is the person being spoken to – in English ‘you’ (note that in English it is the same whether it is one person (2sg) or more (2pl) being spoken to.).

The ‘third’ person is the person being spoken about – in English it’s necessary to show if it’s male or female, or something without gender (neuter) – ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’ / ‘him’, ‘her’, ‘it’ (3sg) – and in plural form ‘they’ or ‘them’ (3pl).

Notice how there are different forms of the pronoun depending on whether it’s the subject, the object, the possessive (belonging to) or the reflexive form (doing something to oneself).

So now we can talk about pronouns by using their function rather than an English term – e.g., 3sg-FEM-SUBJ to describe she (third person singular feminine subject), and 2pl-POSS to describe your (second person plural possessive).

NOTE: Not all languages make the same distinctions – in many Aboriginal languages (including Bininj Kunwok), there is only one form of the third person, it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, human or other, it’s all the same form. They often use different systems of number, where a different word (or morpheme) is used if there are two things involved (called dual) or three things (called trial), or more things (called plural). Note that depending on the language, plural might mean ‘more than one’ (like in English) or ‘more than two’ (if a language has dual but not trial forms) or ‘more than three’ (like Kunwinjku).