Nouns are names. Things which are named have to have be defined, so think of a noun as being a label on a filecard which has lots of ideas which define whatever the thing being named actually is. The label (the noun) is a shorthand way of communicating all of those ideas. For example:
|A flat, hard, rectangular surface set about 700mm above the floor on four legs. People sit at the object to work. It is used to hold books, paper, pens or whatever they are working with at the time. Size varies with the task and place.|
It is easier to use the label rather than say the definition each time you want to refer to the ideas defining a “desk”. (Comedians have made fun of this by inventing characters who lose their nouns and are reduced to trying to spark recall by reciting the ideas. It’s not so funny when older people really do lose their words and have to describe what they are trying to talk about. It shows how effective nouns are at communicating complex ideas quickly.)
These words are shorthand replacements for nouns so that we don’t have to keep repeating nouns. That sounds very simple, but pronouns carry a lot of baggage from the ancestor languages, especially Anglo-Saxon and Latin (and yes, they are related languages if you go back far enough in time). A native speaker will unconsciously select a pronoun from quite a long list, based on their need to consider number, person, gender and case (meaning grammatical purpose in a sentence). Non-native speakers usually have no problem with this, since many languages do the same thing anyway.
The most common are personal sets: one for the persons who are subjects in a sentence: and one for persons who are objects. The box below shows how different the pronouns can be:
|Singular pronouns:||Plural pronouns:|
|he, she, it||him, her, it||they||them|
Pronouns are divided into these main groups:
|Personal pronouns||I, me, he, they|
|Demonstrative pronouns||this, these, those, there|
|Interrogative pronouns||which, who, what, when, how|
|Indefinite pronouns||none, several|
|Possessive pronouns||his, your, yours, mine|
|Reciprocal pronouns||each other, one another|
|Relative pronouns||which, where, who, whom, whose|
|Reflexive pronouns||itself, himself|
|Intensive pronouns||itself, himself|
There’s no point re-inventing the wheel, so here’s a great elaboration at
Problems with pronouns
Nouns are pretty simple to use. Pronouns aren’t. In the first place, what they represent is a shorthand form of a noun which is itself a shorthand of a set of ideas. Each step away from those basic ideas increases the possibility for confusion.
In the second place, in the standard structure of a sentence there will be a subject, verb, and an object. Both the subject and the object are most likely to be based on nouns, and the likelihood of the next sentence in the sequence referring to one of those nouns is pretty high. Because you’ve already used the main noun you have in your head, the normal practice is to then start using pronouns to replace that noun. The problem is that you will be using one pronoun and your listener may have to decide which of two possible nouns it refers to. How do we make that decision?
Some languages have strict rules of precedence to clear up the confusion. Other languages have inflected forms of pronouns based on number and gender. If those inflections also refer to a noun as subject or object, then we have a home run. We can’t go wrong.
English has none of those clues in any formal sense. English relies almost entirely upon context and a shared understanding of the meaning of the conversation. In speech, any weakness in the links based upon context, shared understanding, and probably social relationship will almost inevitably lead to a misunderstanding of one by the other. Usually the misunderstanding is cleared up by establishing a pattern of questioning of the speaker by the listener. While that’s a normal way for a conversation to progress, it is simply not possible in written format.
The best written housekeeping is achieved by anticipating the confusion caused by using pronouns where there are multiple possible nouns to link to, and simply not replacing the nouns. Look at it from the point of view of the nouns: they didn’t ask to be replaced and they quite like their jobs, thanks very much. The point is that unless a pronoun can be used unambiguously, it is better grammatically to use the original noun, even if stylistically it may lead to a sometimes clumsy and repetitive result. I don’t think that being misunderstood, however stylishly, is something to be aimed for or encouraged.
Unless of course, you’re James Joyce.