Pronouns don’t replace nouns

This is a small point, but I see it so often that I feel it needs to be addressed. Pronouns don’t replace nouns. They replace noun phrases (or determiner phrases, if you’re doing that kind of syntax). That means other stuff like the article and the adjectives. For example:

A fat greasy American guy sat next to me on the bus.

Suppose I want to replace the subject with the pronoun he. If it were true that pronouns replaced just nouns, then it would be grammatical to say this:

*A fat greasy he sat next to me on the bus.

But that’s clearly wrong. Instead, we’d say:

He sat next to me on the bus.

And replace all of a fat greasy American guy with he.

Sometimes the noun phrase can contain entire clauses and the pronoun would still replace the whole thing, as in:

[A dolphin [who had been rescued from an oil spill] [which occurred near Japan]] performed a trick.
She performed a trick.

And similarly, I find it odd when people say that adjectives can be used to modify pronouns. This can’t be so, because the adjectives are replaced along with the noun, so they can’t stick around to modify the pronoun. And even if you try and add adjectives, it doesn’t work.

The yellow car crashed.
It crashed.
*The yellow it crashed.
*Yellow it crashed.

The tall woman is famous.
She is famous.
*The tall she is famous.
*Tall she is famous.

(Click here if you don’t know what the * symbol means)



Filed under Linguistics

4 responses to “Pronouns don’t replace nouns

  1. Very astute observation. I think you’re right for it to bug you because it’s all absolutely true.

    Here’s a question for you though in relation to the “adjectives cannot modify pronouns” portion. Would you consider a linked object as modification of the pronoun, or do you only consider direct modifiers as being modification? For example: She is famous. Famous itself is an adjective, and in this case it is the object of the verb, but since it is a linking verb, isn’t that technically just modifying the subject, which in this case is a pronoun replacing a noun phrase? It’s subtle, but I’m curious your thoughts on it, as I am going to be taking my TESOL methods and grammar structure courses this fall. It seems like an interesting point to think about in relation to what you are saying.


    • Good question. I guess what I meant is something like “structurally modify”. The word “famous” isn’t directly attached to the subject in “she is famous” because it’s buried inside the verb phrase. But you do have a point, and when you work out the semantics of the whole sentence the meaning of “famous” definitely affects the interpretation of the subject, be it a pronoun or a full noun phrase. Thanks for the reply!


  2. what can happen if you do not know which noun the pronoun is replacing


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