One of the hardest things for native English speakers to grasp when learning other languages is the concept of gendered nouns. In Spanish, for instance, the word mesa is a feminine noun and is thus given the definite article la. The word libro is masculine and given the article el. But their English counterparts–table and book respectively–use the same definite article: the. That’s because English doesn’t have gendered nouns.
We do have gendered pronouns however, including he, him, his, she, her, and her(s). Using them correctly is a key part of sounding fluent when you are speaking English. He and she are subject pronouns. Him and her are object pronouns. His and her(s) are possessive pronouns. Since March is Women’s History Month in the United States, let’s use the feminine pronouns–and some famous American women–to help us understand the difference between subject, object, and possessive pronouns and how they are used.
All pronouns take the place of nouns that have come before them. These nouns are called antecedents. When the antecedent and the pronoun it represents are used as the subject in a sentence, you want to use the subject form of the pronoun. How do you know if something is the subject of the sentence? The subject is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing, thinking, or being something in the context of the sentence. Here’s an example:
Maria Mitchell was an astronomer from Nantucket, MA. She discovered a comet in 1847. She also became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she was hired by Vassar College as the first female astronomy professor in the United States.
Similar to subject pronouns, when the antecedent and the pronoun it represents are used as the object in a sentence, you want to use the object form of the pronoun. How do you know if something is the object of the sentence? The object is the person, place, thing, or idea that is having something done to it. Here’s an example:
Augusta Savage was a portrait sculptor from Florida and New York. The Julian Rosenwald Fellowship–which allows artists to travel to Paris–was awarded to her twice. The National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors invited her to become their first African-American member, and the organizers of the 1939 New York World’s Fair asked her to create a custom sculpture about African-American music.
Possessive pronouns are a different beast altogether. Possessive pronouns, while still referring to their antecedents, represent ownership and belonging. The feminine possessive pronoun is her or hers, depending on the context. If the pronoun comes before the noun it owns, then you use her. If the noun itself comes before, then the pronoun in use is hers. Here’s an example:
Mildred Ella Didrikson Zaharias, from Texas, is considered one of the greatest female athletes in world history. Her nickname was “Babe.” Though she played many sports, experts say her best sport was golf. Many famous people write autobiographies, and This Life I’ve Led was the name of hers.
Jeanette Rankin of Montana was the first woman to be elected to the United States Congress. She was a famous pacifist, a person who does not believe in war. Voting against U.S. involvement in both World War I and World War II turned people against her. But her beliefs never changed. Right before she died, Jeanette Rankin considered running for Congress again, to express her disapproval of the Vietnam War.