Impersonal Pronouns in English Grammar

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 they are.

Impersonal Pronouns

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. There are three impersonal pronouns in English:

  1. One
  2. You
  3. They

Let us take a look at each one of them.

'One' as Impersonal Pronoun

You can use ‘one’ in different parts of a sentence and in different forms. Below you can find the uses and places 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 .

Remember

This function of 'one' now is 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

You can use ‘one’ as the direct object of a sentence; in this case, of course, you would need a transitive verb followed by ‘one’ as its object:

Exercising too hard can make one get muscle cramps .

3 - ‘One’ as a Possessive

One does not have a special possessive form like the rest of personal pronouns. In order to use it as possessive determiner, you simply add a possessive ‘s’. Notice that ‘One’s’ is only used as possessive determiner and not a pronoun (always comes before a noun). Take a look at this example:

No one can ever replace one’s own family .

4 - ‘One’ as a Reflexive Pronoun

The reflexive form of ‘one’ is ‘oneself.’ ‘Oneself’ also does not refer to a specific person and you can use it to refer to a previously mentioned noun/pronoun:

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

Or 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

This ‘you’ is called ‘generic you’ in grammar. Some consider generic you as the colloquial equivalent of ‘one’; meaning that ‘one’ is more formal than ‘you’, but you cannot use them interchangeably, because there is a small difference in what they refer to. To be precise, when you use ‘generic you’ in a sentence, you are referring to ‘you and everyone that is 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 .

  • People in general:

You can’t smoke in this area .

  • You and everyone else in your hypothetical situation:

You 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 you use ‘they’ to talk about the government or authorities, it usually bears a negative feeling, because it refers to them as ‘people who are not one of us (normal people) and therefore do not understand us. That is why people use ‘they’ in conspiracy theories and songs to refer to the government, rich people, and any other minorities that hold 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’ bears a negative feeling towards the rich.

They speak French in Quebec .

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

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