Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Demonstrative, Relative, Reflexive, and Indefinite Pronouns

Chapter 5: Section 1, Lesson 3

Personal pronouns aren’t the only pronouns. There are also demonstrative pronouns, relative pronouns, reflexive pronouns, and indefinite pronouns. Understanding how these words function is key to using them effectively.

Demonstrative Pronouns
Demonstratives are pointers. They’re words that can act as pronouns or as determiners—adjectives that point to specific things. They include

  • that
  • this
  • such
  • these
  • those

If you say These driving gloves are too tight, you’re using these as an adjective, describing the driving gloves. If you say These are too tight, you’re using these as a pronoun: The noun they refer to (driving gloves) isn’t present in the sentence, so if you’re using the pronoun in written form, the driving gloves must have been mentioned in the previous sentence. If you’re using the pronoun in speech, you can simply point to the driving gloves when you refer to them as these.

As with personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns must always have clear antecedents. Compare these two passages:

  • Some hobbyists are flying drones over the wildfire area. This grounds helicopters, preventing them from dropping water on the fire. Here, the antecedent of this is the entire previous sentence—the fact of hobbyists flying drones. It’s perfectly clear what this is.
  • Common components of a fun picnic are hot dogs, beer, and bowls of potato salad. However, these can cause food poisoning. Here, the antecedent of these is not clear. Probably the writer means that the bowls of potato salad can be dangerous, but the reader cannot be sure.

Relative Pronouns
Relative pronouns select from groups of nouns or pronouns. They include the personal pronouns who, whoever, and whomever, as well as what, whatever, which, whichever, and that. (Note that only the personal pronouns have cases.) Relative pronouns ending in ever are called indefinite relative pronouns since their antecedents are not definite. What can also be an indefinite relative pronoun. Examples:

  • Whoever swiped my brownies is in big trouble.
  • The thief obviously isn’t worrying about what the kids are going to eat at the picnic.

The relative pronouns which and that are often used as the subjects of relative clauses—clauses which act as adjectives, describing nouns or pronouns. Although these two relative pronouns are sometimes used interchangeably, they actually have distinct uses:

  • Which is used when the relative clause is nonrestrictive (also called nonessential). Nonrestrictive clauses are not, strictly speaking, necessary to the overall meaning of the sentence—they could be removed from the sentence without injuring its basic meaning.
  • That is used when the relative clause is restrictive (i.e., essential). A restrictive relative clause is necessary to the overall meaning of the sentence.

Consider these examples:

  • The magenta driving gloves, which were an expensive Christmas gift from my aunt, are very uncomfortable. Here, if you remove the nonrestrictive clause, you get The magenta driving gloves are very uncomfortable. This information conveys the basic meaning of the original sentence—it’s missing an interesting detail, but the detail isn’t essential.
  • In fact, any gift that I get from my aunt is likely to be useless. Here, if you remove the defining clause, you get In fact, any gift is likely to be useless. Obviously, the meaning of this sentence is quite different from that of the original. The clause conveys important information and is therefore essential.

Reflexive Pronouns
These are personal pronouns in the sense that they’re formed by adding self or selves to the personal pronouns my, your, him, her, it, our, and them. Myself, yourself (when you is singular), himself, herself, and itself are all singular; ourselves, yourselves (when you is plural), and themselves are plural.

You should use reflexive pronouns when the subject of the clause is both actor and acted-upon—both subject and object. The number of the reflexive pronoun must match the number of its pronoun.

  • We must not fool ourselves.
  • The poodle regarded herself balefully in the mirror.

You also use reflexive pronouns as intensifiers—to call the reader’s attention to the identity of the noun or pronoun.

  • I myself have made that very same mistake countless times.
  • We ourselves are responsible for the current state of this community.

Reflexive pronouns are never used by themselves: They must always be preceded in the sentence by the noun or pronoun for which they stand. (For example, in the previous sentence, themselves refers to reflexive pronouns.) John, Frank, and myself each bought a movie ticket is incorrect because myself doesn’t “reflect” anything in the sentence. It should read John, Frank, and I each bought a movie ticket.

Indefinite Pronouns
Finally, many pronouns have no antecedents at all, whether explicit or implicit. These are called indefinite pronouns. Essentially, these pronouns function as nouns: They stand for themselves, for people, things, or groups whose identity isn’t known. There are two categories of indefinite pronouns:

  • Those whose antecedents are up for grabs. These include anybody, anything, anyone, everybody, everything, everyone, somebody, something, someone, nobody, no one, none, and nothing.
  • Those whose antecedents can be deduced in context. These may include all, another, other, any, both, each, either, few, many, neither, one, some, and several.

The only difficulty presented by indefinite pronouns is determining whether the pronoun is singular or plural (because when the pronoun is the subject of a clause it must match its verb in number). The following are singular indefinite pronouns:

  • any
  • anyone
  • anybody
  • anything
  • everybody
  • everyone
  • everything
  • each
  • nobody
  • somebody
  • someone

Everybody, everyone, and everything may seem plural, but they’re not. The prefix every in these words means each, and each is always singular.

—and here are some plural indefinite pronouns:

  • all
  • many
  • others
  • none
  • several
  • some

None can be singular or plural. If you say None of the cantaloupe has been eaten, none means not one part, and it’s singular; if you say None of the fire ants were discovered, none means not any, and it’s plural.

Think About It

  • What (or whom) is your demonstrative pronoun pointing at?
  • Which of your sentences need that for nonrestrictive clauses and which for restrictive clauses?
  • Where can reflexive pronouns help intensify the meaning you want to convey?
  • What verbs should be revised based on whether your indefinite pronoun is plural or singular?

Knowing the different types of pronouns and when and how to use them brings flexibility to your writing. With demonstrative, relative, reflexive, and indefinite pronouns, you’ll be able to polish pronoun usage and add details or emphasis in spots that might otherwise seem too simple.