Form and Meaning of Pronouns in the English, German and Russian Language

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

26 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Pronouns as a word class

2. English
2.1. General functions of English pronouns
2.2. Types of English pronouns
2.2.1. Personal pronouns
2.2.2. Demonstrative pronouns

3. German
3.1. Subclasses of pronouns in German

4. Russian
4.1. Personal pronouns
4.2. The possessive pronouns мой, твой, наш, ваш
4.3. Interrogative/relative pronouns

5. Comparing English, German, Russian
5.1. Reflexive pronouns
5.1.1. English reflexive pronouns
5.1.2. Reflexive use of sich in German
5.1.3. The reflexive pronoun себя in Russian
5.1.4. The reflexive possessive pronoun свой, своя, своё, свои
5.1.5. Pronouns сам and самый



1. Pronouns as a word class

The fact that people use a small number of pronouns to refer to a large number of possible participants or a large number of pronouns to indicate one participant, and still manage to communicate effectively, may at first seem unremarkable.

D.D. Wills

Since pronouns are the main grammatical devices by which acts of speaking are tied to the persons who are engaged in the conversation, many linguists investigate how pronouns are employed as a means of coming to understand the ways that speech and society are related.

Pronouns, which are always mentioned as one of the traditional word classes, represent a very heterogeneous collection of ‘closed-class words with nominal function’ (Quirk et al. 1985:335). The definitions found in traditional grammars vary between authors, but they share a vagueness and inconsistency of approach which has not endeared them to modern linguists. Here is a common definition found in D. Crystal’s Encyclopedia of the English Language (1995:206): “A pronoun is a word used instead of a noun or noun-equivalent (i.e. a word which is acting as a noun). Examples: this, who, mine.” Crystal himself finds this definition problematic and comments it as follows: “The definition is almost there, but it has to be altered in one basic respect: pronouns are used instead of noun phrases, not just nouns. He refers to the whole of the phrase the big lion, not just the word lion (we cannot say *the big he). Nothing is said about morphology and syntax.”

The expression ‘central pronouns’ for personal , reflexive and possessive pronouns suggests that these subclasses have a number of features in common and that other, more peripheral pronominal subclasses can be characterized by properties not shared by all members. It appears that the class of pronouns is conceptualized by Quirk et al.(1985) and other authors (e.g. Huddleston 1984:275) as something like a ‘cluster’ or ‘radial category’ with a prototypical core represented by personal pronouns. With regard to their referential functions, those pronouns are traditionally described in terms of deixis and anaphora.

The aim of this paper is to give an overview of the pronominal systems of English, German and Russian and to compare them. The special focus of comparison is the reflexive pronouns due to their complexity and in some aspects controversy.


English pronouns are words which stand for a noun (Latin pro = ‘for’), a whole noun phrase, or several noun phrases. They can also refer directly to some aspect of the situation surrounding the speaker or writer. In each case, the meaning expressed is much less specific than that found in phrases containing nouns (Crystal 1995:210).

- Replacing a noun: I’ve got a red hat and Jane’s got a brown one.
- Replacing a noun phrase: My uncle Fred’s just arrived. He’s quite tired.
- Referring to a very general concept which includes the meaning of many possible noun phrases: I can see someone in the distance (where someone includes men, women, boys, girls, soldiers, etc.).
- Referring to some unspecified event of the situation: (pointing) Look at that! He’s going to crash.

There are the following types of pronoun in English:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

2.1. General functions of English pronouns

English pronouns carry out a similar range of functions to nouns and noun phrases, for example, they can appear as subject, object, or complement of the clause (She saw me, That’s you). They can also follow a preposition. However, they differ from nouns chiefly in not usually permitting modification (a big car, but not *a big it), and in expressing a distinctive set of contrasts.

- Some pronouns have separate cases for subject and object functions, as in I vs. me, who vs. whom.
- Some show a contrast between personal and nonpersonal gender and between male and female: he/she vs. it, who vs. which.
- Some distinguish singular and plural number, but not by adding an -s, as in I vs. we, he vs. they.
- Some have different persons: I vs. you vs. he/she/it.

2.2. Types of English pronouns

There are many kinds of words in English which can act as a pronoun, but they express different kinds of meaning, and they do not all follow the same grammatical rules. This means that different subclasses of pronoun have to be recognised. The first three subclasses below are sometimes grouped together as the central pronouns, because they all express contrasts of person, gender, and number (Crystal:210).

-PERSONAL PRONOUNS are the main means of identifying speakers, addressees, and others: I, you, he, she, it, we, they.

-REFLEXIVE PRONOUNS, always ending in -self or -selves (myself, etc.), ‘reflect’ the meaning of a noun or pronoun elsewhere in the clause:

They washed themselves.

-POSSESSIVE PRONOUNS express ownership, and appear in two forms. My, your, etc. are used as determiners in the noun phrase, as in my car, her bike. Mine, yours, etc. are used on their own, as in.

This is mine, hers is over there. There are several other classes:

-RECIPROCAL PRONOUNS are used to express a ‘two-way’ relationship:

each other, one another.

-INTERROGATIVE PRONOUNS are used to ask questions about personal and nonpersonal nouns:

who?, whom?, whose?, which?, what?

-RELATIVE PRONOUNS (who, whom whose, which that) are used to link a subordinate clause to the head of the noun phrase, as in

That’s the book which caused the trouble.

-DEMONSTRATIVE PRONOUNS (this/these, that/those) express a contrast between ‘near’ and ‘distant’, as in

Take this one here, not that one over there.

They also have a range of extended uses: for example, this may be used to introduce a new topic in familiar speech (I saw this girl...), and that may express a negative attitude (That Roger!).

-INDEFINITE PRONOUNS express a notion of quantity. There are two main types. COMPOUND PRONOUNS consist of two elements: every-, some-, any-, or no- + - one, body, or -thing, as in someone and anything. OF-PRONOUNS consist of several forms which may appear alone or be followed by of (I’ve eaten all the cake / all of the cake). Their meanings range from the ‘universal’ sense of all and both to the ‘negative’ sense of none and few. Other items in this class include each, much, many more, most, less, fewer, some, and neither.

-WHAT and WHICH permit a contrast between definite and indefinite meaning. What road shell we take? (indefinite: an open choice)

Which road shall we take? (definite: we are choosing from a small number of alternatives)

2.2.1. Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns are used when it is clear who or what is being talked about. They are very important: you cannot normally omit them. All personal pronouns, except it, can refer to people (they can refer to both people and things.).

Personal pronouns occur more frequently than any other type. They are called ‘personal’ because they refer to the people involved in the act of communication. The first person involved refers to the speaker(s) or writer(s) of the message:

I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our(s), ourselves.

The second person refers to the addressee(s), excluding speaker(s) or writer(s): you, your(s), yourself /-selve.

The third person refers to ‘third parties’, i.e. excluding the speaker(s), writer(s), and addressee(s):

he, him, his, himself; she, her(s), herself; it, its, itself; they, them, their(s), themselves

It is included, even though it refers to nonpersonal entities, because it behaves in the same way as the others.

There are a few additional personal pronouns. A thou series (thee, thy, thyself, thine) is still sometimes found in religious use, and in some rural British dialects

(Crystal 1995:210). There are also some nonstandard forms, such as youse in northern USA, Ireland, and parts of Britain (e.g. Liverpool, Glasgow). Southern USA has the plural you-all or y’all.

The above roles are the usual ones; but there are also a few special uses. We can refer to

- a single person in the ‘royal’ or ‘editorial’ we: We are not amused.

- the addressee, especially when talking ‘down’:

How are we today? (nurse or patient).

- a third party:

We’re in a bad mood today (secretary about boss).

You and they can refer to people in general, or to some group within society: You never can tell. They keep putting fares up.

It can be used to refer in a general way to time, distance, or life in general: Isn’t it a shame? It’s lovely out.

Pronouns used as the subject of the clause are called subject pronouns. We use the object pronouns in all positions apart from subject. E.g after the verb, or after a preposition. So we call these pronouns object pronouns, but we use them in other positions, as well as object. Personal pronouns can act as direct or indirect object:

Help me (direct object), please.

Mark sent he (indirect object) a Christmas card.

There are three situations where the object pronoun is sometimes used (especially in ‘informal’ English) although it is the subject in terms of meaning:

- After than or as in comparisons:

They work longer hours than us.

- In replies without a verb:

‘I’m feeling very tired.‘ ‘Me too.’

To be save, for the two examples above, we can use the subject pronoun + auxiliary: Her sister can sing better than she can.

- After the verb be (as complement):

‘Is that the Prime Minister, in the middle of the photograph?’ ‘Yes, that’s him.’

In all three cases, the subject pronoun (we, I, he) is ‘uncommon and formal’, although some people think it is ‘correct’. The object pronoun is much more common. (Leech: 389)

Usually the personal pronoun follows the noun phrase it refers to. But occasionally the noun phrase follows the pronoun. This happens when, for example, the pronoun is in a subordinate clause, and the noun phrase is in the main clause:

When she became Queen, Elizabeth already had two children.

There is a special kind of use of personal pronouns in English which expresses politeness. It is ‘polite’ to put I, we, and you after other noun phrases or pronouns:

my husband and I you and your family

The referential function of personal pronouns

As it has been already said above, personal pronouns are by far the most common type of pronoun. They are important for making text ‘cohere’(cohesion), and reference is an important function of them.

Some words point back to other items in a text. This is called ’anaphoric reference’:

Mr Smith is our English teacher. He speaks the language very well.

He points back to Mr Smith: it refers to the same person. This use of pronouns is called reference, and is important in building up texts. Reference ‘binds’ parts of a text together, and helps to make it coherent.

The most important words with this pointing function are:

- 3rd person PERSONAL PRONOUNS: he, she, it, and they

- DEMONSTRATIVES: this, that, these, and those

- The definite article: the (what is not the topic of this paper)

Other words can be used in the same way:

- the other forms of he, she, it, and they: him, his, her, hers, its, them, their, theirs

- reflexive pronouns: himself, herself, itself, themselves

- some adverbs: here, there, now, then.

English has four different pronouns he, she, it, and they, which allow us to keep track of different references in the same piece of text. But sometimes the meaning is not clear, because of different references for the same pronoun. To make the meaning clear, we can replace the pronoun by a phrase which repeats (partly or wholly) the earlier reference.

Inflection of personal pronouns

According to Crystal (1955:203) personal pronouns have a genitive form, as have nouns, but they also have an objective form, which nouns no longer have. This form is chiefly used when the pronoun is the object of a clause (as in He saw me) and when it is governed by a preposition (as in He gave it to me). The term objective reflects this function, and replaces the older term accusative, favoured by traditional grammar, which was more appropriate for Latin. Similarly, when a pronoun is the subject of a clause, it is said to be in the subjective (formerly, nominative) case.

Five pronouns show this distinction: I/me, we/us, he/him, she/her, and they/them. Who also has an objective form (whom) as well as a genitive form (whose = ‘of whom/which’). The other pronouns have genitive forms, too, traditionally described as the possessive pronouns: my/mine, our(s), his, her(s), its, their(s), and your(s). The alternatives identify two constructions, in which the pronoun can either accompany a noun or stand alone:

That is her book vs. That book is hers.

The objective case has long been a focus of prescriptive grammar. In certain contexts, it is used where the Latin-influenced grammatical tradition recommends the subjective:

Who’s there? It’s me.

She’s as tall as him.

Ted and me went by bus.

These usages attract varying degrees of criticism in a formal setting. Me as a singleword reply is now used by almost everyone, and attracts little comment. The X and me type of construction, however, is often criticised, especially when speakers reverse the normal order of politeness, and put the pronoun first:

Me and Ted went by bus.

Ironically, as a result of the long-standing criticism of me and other objective forms, there is now a widespread sensitivity about their use, and this has led people to avoid them, even in parts of the clause where their use would be grammatically correct:

Between you and I...

He asked Mike and I to do it.

There is also uncertainty over the correct form in sentences such as It’s no use my/me asking her. Older grammars analyse words like asking as ‘verbal nouns’, or gerunds, and insist on the use of the possessive pronoun (my, etc.) or the genitive form o a noun:

John’s asking me.

Modern grammars do not use the term gerund: asking in this example would be analysed as a verb (the -ing form), as can bee seen from the way it takes an object, him. The possessive is the preferred usage in a formal style, especially if the item is a pronoun or a short, personal noun phrase. The alternative is more common in informal styles (Crystal 1995:203).

2.2.2. Demonstrative pronouns

Demonstratives are words we use to ‘point’ to the context - i.e. to the situation in which we speak and write.

This and these are called ‘near’ because they indicate something near to the speaker. That and those refer to something less near to the speaker. But there are other uses where this, that, these and those do not express the ‘near’/’far’ difference. That refers to something which has been mentioned or to something which both the speaker and the hearer know about.

‘I’m going to Majorca for two weeks.’ ‘Where’s that?’

‘You remember that box of chocolates I bought for my mother?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well - I can’t find it.‘

those can mean ‘not near’ both in a physical sense and in an emotional sense. For example, those expresses a negative feeling in:

I really hate those loud motorbikes, don’t you? Those in writing can mean ‘the people ...’

James admires those who succeed. (‘the people who succeed’)

or be a replacement for an earlier phrase. It means ‘the ones ...’

Clothes which are made by hand last much longer than those (= ‘the ones’) made in a factory.

All four demonstratives can act as DETERMINER (usually with a following noun), or as PRONOUN (without a following noun):

determiner pronoun

‘That man is my father.’ ‘And who is that? Your


the demonstratives are often used in writing, and less commonly in speech, to refer to something in the text - typically something which has been recently mentioned.


German pronouns have the same function in the sentence as noun phrases (not nouns as such). Semantically, and to some extent syntactically too, they fall into a wide range of subclasses, which traditional grammar rightly identifies. The major types are personal, demonstrative, reflexive, possessive, relative, interrogative, and indefinite pronouns.

Many of these have close morphological and semantic links with nounqualifiers, giving a partly parallel set of determiners (often treated as adjectives): demonstrative, possessive, interrogative, and indefinite. We may thus have ‘Welches Tier ist das?’ (determiner) or ‘Welches ist das?’ (pronoun); ‘Das ist mein Buch’ (determiner) or ‘Das ist meines’ (pronoun) etc. (Fox, A. 1990:161ff.)

3.1. Subclasses of pronouns in German

Most of the forms of pronouns are suppletive (i.e. they are not segmentable). While the nominative forms seem to be completely idiosyncratic (ich, du, er, sie, es, etc.), the other case forms seem to exhibit specific morphological characteristics, at least in the first and second persons.

Personal pronouns of German:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The category of person

Person is not an intrinsic category of the verb, but reflects a choice made elsewhere in the sentence, with which the verb must agree. The person of the verb is derived from the nature of the subject of the sentence. The natural semantic basis for the grammatical category of person is to be found in the roles of participants in the act of speaking: typically, such acts have a speaker, an addressee, and something talked about, giving the three ‘persons’:

- speaker: 1st person Ich werde dir das Buch geben.
- addressee: 2nd person Du wirst das Buch von mir bekommen.
- what is talked about: 3rd person Das Buch wird auf dem Tisch sein.

In each example there is a speaker (ich), a hearer (du), and something spoken about (das Buch), though not all of these find overt expression in every sentence. As each of these in tern is made the subject of the sentence, the verb-form changes to agree with it.

That there should be such persons may seem to be self-evident, since they appear to be implicit in the very act of communication itself. But this naturally does not mean that they need to be given grammatical expression in particular languages. In fact, though the distinction between different forms of the pronouns seems to be

normal in languages, corresponding differences in the verb-forms are by no means necessary, and many languages make no such distinctions. In regular verbs, English has only two forms (I/you/we/they come; he/she/it comes), and then only in the present tense. German has four (occasionally five) forms in the present (ich komme; du kommst; er/sie/es/ihr kommt; wir/sie/Sie kommen) and four in the past: (ich/er/sie/es kam; du kamst; ihr kamt; wir/sie/Sie kamen). Moreover, these different form include differences of number as well as person, since the two are inseparable. Person as such is not, therefore. Very well defined morphologically in German.

But the category of person also contains some interesting problems of its own:

(i) Wir geben dir das Buch.

(ii) Wir geben ihm das Buch.

Wir in sentence (i) is first person. And thus refers to the speaker, but since it is also plural it must include someone else. The speaker is thus grouping himself or herself with other persons, but not, it must be noted, with the addressee, who is referred to separately in this sentence by the second-person pronoun dir. Sentence

(ii), on the other hand, is ambiguous - though not, perhaps, in an obvious way. Here the other person or persons referred to by the first-person plural pronoun may include the addressee. Wir may, in other words, mean ich und du, or ich und er/sie. The second-person plural pronouns have a similar ambiguity. Ihr or Sie may mean ‘you the addressees and one else’ or ‘you the addressees and someone else’. These cases show that ‘person’ has more possibilities than simply the three persons recognized in the grammar of German (some languages in fact incorporate these additional distinctions into their grammars).

Demonstrative pronouns of German:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

König/Gast (2006:63)

The genitive form of the demonstrative pronouns (dessen, deren) is corresponding to the two types of possessive pronouns (or ‘determiners’): sein or ihr. There is a semantic contrast between these two forms which is typically exploited for purposes of ‘reference tracking’: the demonstrative forms are used whenever the possessor in question is not topical or salient, in particular, if it is not subject of the same clause. In English, such a distinction cannot easily be made. This is related to the fact that English does not have mono-morphemic demonstrative pronouns and uses its demonstrative determiners this or that, sometimes combined with the pronoun one.


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Form and Meaning of Pronouns in the English, German and Russian Language
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
HS Understanding English-German Contrasts
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form, meaning, pronouns, english, german, russian, language
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Elena Dubodelova (Author), 2007, Form and Meaning of Pronouns in the English, German and Russian Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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