Impersonal Pronouns

An impersonal pronoun does not refer to a specific person or thing. These pronouns help us talk about a thing or person without mentioning what or who.

intermediate
"Impersonal Pronouns" in English Grammar

What Are Impersonal Pronouns?

An impersonal pronoun is one that does not refer to a specific person or thing. These pronouns are usually used to refer to an unspecified person or people in general.

English Impersonal Pronouns

There are three impersonal pronouns in English:

Let us take a look at each one of them.

'One' as Impersonal Pronoun

'One' can be used in various parts and forms within a sentence. Below are some of the common uses and placements of 'one'.

1. 'One' as the Subject

'One' is often used as the subject of a sentence:

One can always count on this place to serve great food.

In this example, 'one' is the subject and it means everyone or people in general.

Tip!

Using 'one' is now considered very formal and old-fashioned. It is much more usual to use you for people in general and I when you want to refer to yourself.

2. 'One' as the Object

'One' can be used as the direct object of a sentence, in which case the sentence requires a transitive verb followed by 'one' as its object.

Exercising too hard can make one get muscle cramps.

In this case, 'make' is a transitive verb and 'one' is its direct object.

Using 'One' as the Object of a sentence

3. 'One' as a Possessive

'One' does not have a special possessive form like the other impersonal pronouns. In order to use it as a possessive determiner, a possessive ‘'s’ is added to it. Keep in mind that 'one’s' is only used as possessive determiner and not a pronoun. Take a look at this example:

No one can ever replace one's own family.

One's is the possessive determiner, so it will be followed by a noun (own family).

4. 'One' as a Reflexive Pronoun

The reflexive form of 'one' is 'oneself.' 'Oneself' does not refer to a specific person either and can be used to refer to a previously mentioned noun/pronoun:

One would need time to find oneself again after such a trauma.

'Oneself' can also be used as the object of a sentence without a clear subject:

It's important to seek help for oneself at such strange times.

'You' as Impersonal Pronoun

The use of 'you' as an impersonal pronoun is known as 'generic you' in grammar. Some consider 'generic you' to be the colloquial equivalent of 'one'. While 'you' is considered less formal than 'one', they are not interchangeable because there is a slight difference in their meaning. 'Generic you' refers to 'you and everyone in your hypothetical situation'. 'You' as an impersonal pronoun can be used to refer to:

  • An unspecified person:

If you had to work 10 hours a day, you would be exhausted too.

In this example, 'you' refers to an unspecified person.

  • People in general:

You can't smoke in this area.

This sentence means 'people' cannot smoke in this area.

  • You and everyone else in your hypothetical situation:

You can buy a car and pay for it in installments.

This sentence means 'all of us can buy a car and pay for it in installments.'

'They' as Impersonal Pronoun

Impersonal 'they' is used to refer to:

  1. One or more unknown person(s)
  2. A particular group

When 'they' is used to talk about the government or authorities, it usually bears a negative connotation, because it refers to them as people who are not one of us (normal people) and therefore do not understand us. That is why 'they' is used in conspiracy theories and songs to refer to the government, rich people, and any other minority that holds the majority of control, power, financial assets, etc.

They live in mansions and eat caviar; do you really think they care about the poor at all?

In this example, 'they' conveys a negative feeling towards the rich.

They speak French in Quebec.

Here, 'they' refers to a particular group of people: residents of Quebec.

Review

An impersonal pronoun is one that does not refer to a specific person or thing.

One You They
Impersonal Pronouns is used as a subject/ as an object/ as a possessive/ as a reflexive pronoun refers to unspecific person/ people in general/ you and anybody else in your hypothetical situation refers to unknown people/ a particular group

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