The term 'pronoun' itself causes plenty of confusion.

Its etymology suggests that a pronoun somehow stands for a noun:

mid-15c., from pro- and noun; modeled on Middle French pronom, from Latin pronomen, from pro "in place of" + nomen "name, noun" (see name (n.)). A loan-translation of Greek antonymia.

A pronoun, however, doesn't stand for a noun but a noun phrase (NP), as stated in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (CGEL) (Page 1461):

The traditional term ‘pronoun’ is based on the idea that words of this class ‘stand for’ nouns. Traditional grammar does not work with a constituent structure model like that assumed in this book, and hence does not draw the distinction we do between nouns and NPs. When adapted to the present framework, therefore, the traditional idea is that pronouns are words that ‘stand for’ NPs.

But this, being "the traditional idea", doesn't mean it's safe to say that pronouns stand for NPs, either.

Firstly, pronouns such as what, who, I, and you do not stand for any NPs or even any thing, because some such pronouns "[fall] outside the scope of anaphora," as CGEL puts it. For example, none of these pronouns stands for anything:

What do you want?

Who is he? (Looking at a man.)

I love you.

Secondly, pronouns such as "it" can stand for clauses:

If he was disappointed by her response he did not show it. [pro-clause] (CGEL page 1463)

At this point, I wonder how continuing to use the term 'pronoun' can be anything but confusing. But CGEL wants to keep the term:

In the present grammar we retain the traditional category of pronoun, but introduce a further category based on the idea of ‘standing for’ – the category of pro-form.

The literal and obvious meaning arising from the term is so incongruous with what the term purports to refer to that it seriously hinders our understanding of what pronouns actually are.

What I agree with CGEL is that a pronoun is a noun because it acts like one, e.g., acting as a subject, an object, and a predicative complement in a clause, and acting as a head of an NP. And a couple of previous questions received answers agreeing that it is a noun:

Are pronouns nouns?

Pronouns: a word class or a subclass of nouns?

Now, if pronouns are to belong to nouns, between common nouns and proper nouns, pronouns seem closer to proper nouns than to common nouns in the sense that they don't take any determiners or, in most cases, any dependents.

Also, while some proper nouns such as America and England refer to the the same thing regardless of context, other proper nouns such as Jones and Mom can refer to different things depending on context. If we call the latter proper nouns ad hoc proper nouns, can we not use the same term for pronouns or at least consider them as such?

  • Too broad for ELU.
    – Kris
    Jan 3, 2018 at 10:49
  • While I'm certainly not in favour of all the recommendations to be found in CGEL (intransitive prepositions being a lumping too far in my opinion), their stance (which is pretty generally held) here seems better than this suggested recategorisation. I'd say a complete overhaul of the situation covering all the presently accepted subclasses of pronouns would be better, but that is a mammoth task. // Would 'England' become an 'ad hoc proper noun' in 'the England of 1755'? 'England were beaten 2-0'? Jan 3, 2018 at 12:29
  • John is annoying. I don't like him. How is John a noun phrase? Your brother is annoying. I don't like him. Now that qualifies just barely as a noun phrase, but where is the substantial difference?
    – KarlG
    Jan 3, 2018 at 12:35
  • 1
    @KarlG A noun phrase can consist of a single noun in case you're not aware of it.
    – JK2
    Jan 3, 2018 at 13:15
  • @KarlG Here's an example of an NP consisting of a single noun: Necessity is the mother of invention. The subject consists of a single noun necessity, which by itself constitutes an NP.
    – JK2
    Jan 3, 2018 at 13:23

1 Answer 1


You ask:

Can 'pronouns' be considered ad hoc proper nouns?

While you make an interesting case, I think you're mixing the meaning of proper nouns with how they are used ("don't take any determiners", etc).

Proper noun noun A name used for an individual person, place, or organization, spelled with an initial capital letter, e.g. Jane, London, and Oxfam. - ODO

Since pronouns don't always function this way (they aren't even names), I don't think it would be appropriate to call them ad hoc proper nouns.

  • Are you sure that pronouns "aren't even names"? Do you accept the categorization that pronouns belong to nouns? If you do, pronouns have to be names, if you know what I mean.
    – JK2
    Jan 3, 2018 at 13:18
  • @JK2 I'm sure "it" isn't ordinarily a name (cousins to the Addams excluded). By 'name', I don't just mean references (like 'table' or 'she') - I mean labels, like 'America' or 'JK2'. In that sense, pronouns are definitely not names. The notion of 'belonging' to nouns is descriptive, but I don't think it goes far enough to make pronouns names. One could say that adverbs 'belong' to verbs (if I've understood your abstract notion of 'belonging'), but that doesn't make adverbs verbs.
    – Lawrence
    Jan 3, 2018 at 17:28
  • A "name" is defined by Oxford as "a word or set of words by which a person or thing is known, addressed, or referred to." en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/name According to this definition, I believe that pronouns are names.
    – JK2
    Jan 4, 2018 at 1:53
  • @JK2 I disagree. "The Mona Lisa" would be considered a name. The definition for name you referenced might conceivably be stretched to cover the noun painting with reference to the same object, but 'it' would be stretching that definition to breaking point. ...
    – Lawrence
    Jan 4, 2018 at 3:34
  • @JK2 ... There is an argument that adjectives are really nouns because one can conceivably ask for a "red". I think calling pronouns proper nouns has a similar feel - although you can redefine proper noun to include pronouns, it waters down the useful distinction between pronouns and proper nouns. It would be preferable (in my opinion) to use a different term to refer to the hypernym of pronouns and proper nouns that excludes nouns that aren't proper nouns.
    – Lawrence
    Jan 4, 2018 at 3:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.