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Personal pronouns

What is a personal pronoun?

When we first hear about pronouns, these are generally the first set of pronouns that are discussed: I, me, you, he, him, she, her, it, we, us, they, and them. Maybe this is because they just feel a bit more personal, a bit more our own.

However, personal pronouns do not simply refer to people; the word personal refers to the role they play in a sentence – substituting the first (I or we), second (you) or third (he, she, it or they) person in the grammatical sense. This means that they describe the person (as discussed), the number (singular like him or plural like us), the gender (he, she or it, where appropriate), and the case (they or them).

In English, there is no gender assigned in the plural version of the third person: they are simply they. However, this is not the case in many languages, like Italian.

Due to the dual role that personal pronouns play in sentences, there are two varieties: the subjective personal pronoun (I, you, he, she, etc.) and the objective personal pronoun (me, you, her, him, us and them). The first set are used when the pronoun performs the verb (I love you), the second when the pronoun receives the action (I love you.)

Only you

If it seems strange that you has only one version across the singular and plural examples, and the objective and subjective versions too, it is because it is a recent usurper. Once upon a time, thou was used as the second person singular subjective pronoun (thou gavest me the Black Death!), while thee was the objective version (I have stabbed thee in the vitals).

In Old English, you was originally only the objective version of ye: as a roughly translated example, ye are many, they are few, as opposed to you are many, which might have sounded as wrong as me went to the shops this morning would to us.

When the Romans decided to start addressing the Emperor with the plural version of the second person, reflecting his prestige, the days of thou in English were somehow numbered. The Normans brought the habit over to England, and ye/you began to crop up alongside thee/thou in the singular column, initially to address royalty and aristocracy, but it was gradually applied to lower social orders as a polite singular form.

Eventually, you also unseated ye, allowing the latter to hang on just long enough to appear in the early English versions of the Bible. Thou and thee still survive in some dialect versions of English and in literature, but their defeat is almost final.

There are also dialect variations of you, like youse and y’all, which perhaps seek to re-establish a plural second person version, but they are yet to cross into the mainstream.

Some things to bear in mind

Everything seems straightforward in terms of grammatical gender, case, number, etc., but languages have a way of creating complexities, and English personal pronouns are no exception.

For example, if we are not sure of the gender of the person to whom we refer, a few different options have been thrown up; we can say he or she will arrive Tuesday or we might force they to perform the role of the singular third person, as in they might be a man or a woman. Perhaps this was how you came to spread as it did.

In another typically British move, the weather also has its own rules; we will say that it rains a lot in London, but we cannot tell you to what the it refers. The same it pops up when we ask sometime Is it normal? or state that It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.

Additionally, it is quite normal for some inanimate objects and even abstract nouns like countries to be assigned a gender: Britain defends her borders, while the Royal Yacht Britannia has her repairs done.

Examples of personal pronouns

First person singular subject pronounI think you look amazing
Second person singular object pronounCan I ask you something?
Third person plural subject pronounThey are only jealous, babes.
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