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Grammatical Functions of English Pronouns and Pronoun Phrases

Nouns are traditionally defined as “persons, places, things, and ideas.” Noun phrases are defined as phrases that consist of a noun or pronoun and any number of constituents including adjectives, determiners, prepositional phrases, verb phrases, and adjective clauses. Pronoun is a subcategory of noun. Pronouns and noun phrases headed by pronouns perform eight grammatical functions within sentences in the English language. The eight functions of pronouns are:

  1. Noun phrase head
  2. Subject
  3. Subject complement
  4. Direct object
  5. Object complement
  6. Indirect object
  7. Prepositional complement
  8. Appositive

Because pronoun is a subcategory of noun, phrases in which a pronoun functions as the phrase head are considered noun phrases. In other words, pronoun phrase is a subcategory of noun phrase. However, most grammars refer to phrases with pronouns functioning as the phrase head as noun phrases rather than pronoun phrases.

Noun Phrase Head

The first grammatical function that pronouns perform is the noun phrase head. A noun phrase consists of a noun including a pronoun plus any determiners, modifiers, and complements. For example, the following italicized pronouns function as noun phrase heads:

  • me (personal pronoun)
  • that (demonstrative pronoun)
  • what (interrogative pronoun)
  • someone special (indefinite pronoun)
  • anybody to call (indefinite pronoun)

Subjects

The second grammatical function that pronouns perform is the subject. A subject is a word, phrase, or clause that performs the action of or acts upon the verb. For example, the following italicized pronouns function as subjects:

  • Did you call? (personal pronoun)
  • These stink terribly! (demonstrative pronoun)
  • Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? (interrogative pronoun)
  • No one should work this weekend. (indefinite pronoun)
  • Another bit the dust. (indefinite pronoun)

Subject Complements

The third grammatical function that pronouns perform is the subject complement. A subject complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a copular, or linking, verb and describes the subject of a clause. The terms predicate nominative and predicate noun are also used for pronouns that function as subject complements. For example, the following italicized pronouns function as predicate nominatives:

  • This is she. (personal pronoun)
  • This is her. (personal pronoun)
  • The cookies for the sale are those. (demonstrative pronoun)
  • The thief was who? (interrogative pronoun)
  • The winner was neither. (indefinite pronoun)

Direct Objects

The fourth grammatical function that pronouns perform is the direct object. A direct object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a transitive verb and answers the question “who?” or “what?” receives the action of the verb. For example, the following italicized pronouns function as direct objects:

  • A dog bit you? (personal pronoun)
  • The mailman delivered this. (demonstrative pronoun)
  • My brother brought which? (interrogative pronoun)
  • Raymond loves everybody. (indefinite pronoun)
  • Your sister-in-law has borrowed several. (indefinite pronoun)

Object Complements

The fifth grammatical function that pronouns perform is the object complement. Object complements are defined as nouns, pronouns, noun phrases, adjectives, and adjective phrases that directly follow and modify the direct object. For example, the following italicized pronouns function as object complements:

  • You painted the bathroom this?! (demonstrative pronoun)
  • He considered the movie what? (interrogative pronoun)
  • The neighbors stained their fence which? (interrogative pronoun)
  • The committee may elect me either. (indefinite pronoun)
  • You should appoint her something. (indefinite pronoun)

Indirect Objects

The sixth grammatical function that pronouns perform is the indirect object. An indirect object is word, phrase, or clause that indicates to or for whom or what the action of a ditransitive verb is performed. For example, the following italicized pronouns function as indirect objects:

  • My husband bought me flowers. (personal pronoun)
  • A stranger sent her a box of chocolates. (personal pronoun)
  • You should give that some thought. (demonstrative pronoun)
  • She wants to give whom that ugly armchair? (interrogative pronoun)
  • The committee has given both some real consideration. (indefinite pronoun)

Prepositional Complements

The seventh grammatical function that pronouns perform is the prepositional complement. A prepositional complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows a preposition and completes the meaning of the prepositional phrase. For example, the following italicized pronouns function as prepositional complements:

  • My husband bought flowers for me. (personal pronoun)
  • Send a free sample to them. (personal pronoun)
  • The library really frowns upon that. (demonstrative pronoun)
  • You threw a tantrum for what? (interrogative pronoun)
  • I received an anonymous letter from somebody. (indefinite pronoun)

Appositives

The eighth grammatical function that pronouns perform is the appositive. An appositive is a word, phrase, or clause that modifies or explains another noun phrase. For example, the following italicized pronouns function as appositives:

  • That man, him, stole my purse. (personal pronoun)
  • The winner is a woman, her. (personal pronoun)
  • A dog, that, has been digging in my garden. (demonstrative pronoun)
  • That fork and that spoon both are dirty. (indefinite pronoun)

Pronouns Versus Determiners

Although the personal pronouns resemble the possessive determiners, the demonstrative pronouns resemble the demonstrative determiners, and the interrogative pronouns resemble the interrogative determiners, pronouns do not function as determinatives. Instead, determiners similar or identical in grammatical form to the pronouns perform the grammatical function of determinative. For example:

  • Give the coat to her. (personal pronoun)
  • Give the coat to her daughter. (possessive determiner)
  • That belongs to me. (demonstrative pronoun)
  • That hat belongs to me. (demonstrative determiner)
  • Which is yours? (interrogative pronoun)
  • Which car is yours? (interrogative determiner)

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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