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Frequently asked questions about English pronouns

July 28, 2021 - 15:28

When it comes to English pronouns, there are questions that are asked frequently but not answered very often. Here, we are going to discuss 4 of the most common questions from language learners:

1 - It vs. They

The difference between 'it' and 'they' may seem obvious but there are similar uses that make it a bit trickier.

When to use “they”:

We generally use 'they' to refer to:

  • People
  • Animals
  • Non-human but living things 
  • Non-human and non-living objects 

When to use “it”:

We generally use it to refer to:

  • A Non-human but living thing 
  • A Non-human and non-living object 

Tricky cases

Here are cases in which choosing the right pronoun seem more difficult:

Plurale Tantum

Plurale tantum or plural only nouns are nouns that are always plural, this includes words like: pants, jeans, glasses, etc. For these words you should always use a “they”. Here is an example:

I bought a pair of pants. They're black.

Collective Nouns (companies)

The Names of chain stores are usually used in plural in English but you should use “it” to refer to them. Here is an example:

McDonalds has added a new snack to its menu. It's advertising it nonstop.

Avoiding gender

If you don’t know the gender of someone you are referring to or don’t want to use gender you better use “they”. Using “it” to refer to people is rude. Here is an example:

Every child deserves an education. They must have a chance to follow their dreams.

2 - Their vs Theirs

These two words are very similar, they are both possessive words, but there is a big difference between these two words. The first one “their” is a possessive determiner. The second one “theirs” on the other hand is a possessive pronoun.

The difference between a pronoun and a determiner

The determiner should always come before a noun (or a noun phrase) you cannot use it as a single word and it cannot be the subject of the object of a sentence alone. Here is an example:

These are their notebooks.

On the contrary, the pronouns should be used alone as the subject or object of the sentence. Take a look at these examples:

The notebooks are theirs.

There is a relatively uncommon use of English possessive pronouns, in which the pronoun is used with another noun in this structure: “noun + of + possessive pronouns”.

He's a friend of theirs.

You can make the same sentence with a possessive determiner as well (He’s their friend) although the example above is more formal.

3 - Nobody vs no one

This question can be asked about any of the English indefinite pronouns like “every one vs everybody” or “any one vs anybody”. The truth is that there is not much of a difference between the two and they can be used interchangeably; although the pronoun “nobody” is more common than “no one” and is also more informal. So, the two following examples have the same meaning with a little difference informality:

No one knew what to do.

Nobody knew what to do.

4 - His vs he’s

These two words have relatively similar pronunciation and that may be the source of the confusion. Although they are pronounced a little different; the word “his” is pronounced with a short ee sound like /hɪz/ and the phrase “he’s” is pronounced with a longer form like /hiːz/.

The way they are used though is totally different. His is a possessive pronoun and determiner and “he’s” is the contracted form of the phrase “he is”.

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