In the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston & Pullum 2002) and many other grammars, the English pronouns are viewed as a subcategory of the English nouns. In other grammars, such as the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk et al. 1985) pronouns are considered a separate category of word, so that we have nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs so on and so forth. What are the arguments for including and excluding English pronouns from the English noun category?

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    The arguments for counting pronouns as nouns are that some authorities argue that way. The arguments against are that other authorities argue that way. The argument that it doesn't make any freekin' difference is the one I adhere to.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 21:50
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    @HotLicks I don't care whether you care! I want to know what the arguments are. This is the site for finding out that type of information. Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 21:53
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    Two arguments against are (1) Common nouns accept determiners (a / this / my bike; some rice) whereas pronouns don't (I'm not sure how strict this rule is); (2) Common nouns are more readily premodifiable by adjectives (an old grey car; *an old grey it). Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 22:14
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    There are many places where a pronoun may be substituted for a noun / noun phrase including noun. ___ are tasty. I like ___. Give ___ to ___. Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 22:17
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    At the risk of sounding frivolous, Calvin once told Hobbes that "a pronoun is a noun that turned professional." Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 22:42

4 Answers 4


My answer complements this and a previous discussion of the issue

Pronouns: a word class or a subclass of nouns?

by quoting extensively from Aarts' analysis in Modern English Grammar on pages 44-46 under the heading Pronouns (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Pronouns belong to the class of nouns because they can head noun phrases that function as Subject, Direct Object, and Indirect Object, Complement of a preposition and Predicative Complement.

Aarts goes on to note:

In some grammars pronouns are regarded as a separate word class. There are a number of reasons for this. Among them are the following:

  • Pronouns show a distinction between nominative, accusative and genitive case, while common nouns do not.

  • Pronouns show a distinction for person (first person, 2nd person, etc.) and gender (he/she, him/her, etc.) but common nouns do not.

  • Pronouns do not have inflectional plurals in Standard English (cf. *yous, *hes, etc.), although they do have singular vs plural person distinctions (e.g. I vs we). ...

  • Pronouns are much more limited than common nouns in their potential for taking dependents. For example, while we can have determinatives and adjectives in front of common nouns, they cannot generally determine and modify pronouns. Thus we cannot say *The he left the meeting or *Intelligent you did well in the exams. ... Nouns can be followed by prepositional phrases as in my cancellation of the reservation; pronouns generally cannot.

  • Noun phrases with common nouns as Head can have independent reference, while pronouns rely on the linguistic or extra-linguistic context for their reference. Thus, if I say I met the boss this morning the NP the boss refers to a mutually identifiable individual. ... If I say Katie married Harry because she loves him then the most likely reading of this utterance is for she to refer to Katie and for him to refer to Harry.

Despite these observations we take the fact that pronouns can act as the Heads of phrases that can function as Subject, Direct Object, Predicative Complement, and so on, as a sufficiently weighty reason for regarding them as nouns.

I think Aarts makes a convincing enough case for pronouns to be regarded as a sub-class of noun rather than a word class in their own right. But I do not expect that this modern analysis will have much impact on pedagogic grammars (as opposed to Aarts' descriptive grammar) or teaching materials.

  • if pronoun is a sub-class of noun, what term would we use to refer to nouns except pronouns, i.e. "non-pronoun nouns". For example, if I were to say that "nouns don't have weak and strong forms in speech because they're content words", that wouldn't be true if we take "nouns" to include the pronouns
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Sep 8, 2020 at 18:33
  • @Some_guy. You have put your finger on one consequence of categorising pronouns as nouns. The CGEL refers to 'traditional' nouns as prototypical nouns (p327). This may be a satisfactory solution to the problem you mention.
    – Shoe
    Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 7:15
  • Thanks for the answer. Bit of a mouthful though isn't it!
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 14:36
  • Also, even worse is that prototypical noun, while being unwieldy in its own right, is also unsuitable for abbreviation. After all, what am I going to use, "pro. noun"? Still, at least it's an answer!
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 14:39
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    @Some_Guy. The problem with "prototypical noun" as a way to distinguish it from "pronoun" is that "prototypical" is also the term used to distinguish among nouns. So, for example, "cat" is a prototypical noun since it passes the primary noun tests. Compare with "ask" as in "That's a big ask". E.g. "My cat/the cat's tail' ", "?My ask/?the ask's answerer".
    – Shoe
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 19:16

From The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), ch. 5, § 1, p. 327:

Traditionally pronouns are regarded as a separate part of speech, but there are strong grounds for treating them as a subcategory of noun. They differ inflectionally from prototypical nouns and permit a narrower range of dependents, but they qualify as nouns by virtue of heading phrases which occur in the same functions as phrases headed by nouns in the traditional sense, i.e. common and proper nouns. This functional likeness between common nouns, proper nouns, and pronouns is illustrated for the three main clause-structure complement functions in:

        COMMON/PROPER NOUN                      PRONOUN
  i. a. [The boss] / [Liz] was late.         b. [She] was late.                 [subject]
 ii. a. I'll tell [the boss] / [Liz].        b. I'll tell [her].                 [object]
iii. a. It was [the boss] / [Liz] who left.  b. It was [she/her] who left.  [predicative]

So, in CGEL's view, the arguments for excluding pronouns from the category of nouns are:

  • pronouns "differ inflectionally from prototypical nouns"
  • pronouns "permit a narrower range of dependents" than prototypical nouns

and the argument for including them is:

  • phrases headed by pronouns "occur in the same functions as phrases headed by nouns in the traditional sense"

(I guess we could summarize this by saying that on the local/small scale, pronouns behave differently from common and proper nouns, while on a larger scale, pronoun-headed phrases behave the same as common– and proper-noun headed phrases.)

I'm sure that these are not the only arguments to be made in each direction.

  • Actually, what CEGL sells as a new find is a platitude. As pronouns stand for nouns or replace nouns, they have the same function in a sentence as nouns.
    – rogermue
    Commented Apr 10, 2016 at 9:53
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    @rogermue: I disagree with both of your sentences: CGEL does not claim that this is a new find, and pronouns do not exactly replace nouns. (Contrast "the girl" with *"the her"; "tall man" with *"tall him"; and "college admissions" with *"it admissions".)
    – ruakh
    Commented Apr 10, 2016 at 14:53

As early as 1967, the National Counsel of Teachers of English (NCTE) made an effort to get English teachers on board with the logical arguments for considering a pronoun a type of noun. In "Ideas for Teaching English" on page 338, it states:

"Teach types of nouns: common, proper, pronoun."

Sadly, this obviously has not caught on over the last 50 years.

A related point is the ubiquitous yet illogical classification of possessive determining adjectives as pronouns in typical English grammar books. Again, in 1967 in "Ideas for Teaching English" it states:

"Teach determiners (examples: the, a, this, his, several, one, etc.)"

The logical classifications (pronouns are a kind of noun, and possessive determiners ARE NOT pronouns) are clearly more simple and therefore easier to understand. The basic grammar of sentence structure actually makes sense when all the pieces fit together nicely!

Why do we have to continue fighting this fight?

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    People make arguments for different analyses. For example, the argument for treating words like "his" as pronouns is that in a phrase like "his book", we can replace "his" with "Harry's", where "Harry" is a noun.
    – herisson
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 16:07
  • I do think that words like "his" are pronouns and hence nouns broadly for the reason given by Sumelic above. However, +1 for the interesting info re the NCTE. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 19:57
  • @intelengua: You refer to determiners as adjectives while the work you quote seems (to me) to treat them as a separate class. Is there a reason you consider determiners to be adjectives?
    – iconoclast
    Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 20:11

My experience teaching English to 12-14 year olds is that calling pronouns a subclass of nouns causes too much confusion to be worth it. The number of features that are not common with other types of nouns is long enough and challenging enough to make pronouns seem so exceptional they really should stand alone. Maybe bring them back in for older students who can cope with the sophistication of all the above comments?

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