A contrastive Analysis of Personal Pronouns in English and Vietnamese

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A Contrastive Analysis of Personal Pronouns in English and Vietnamese

Student: Huynh Ngoc Thanh

Professor: Nguyen Ngoc Vu

Contrastive Analysis 2009

28 December 2009

Pronouns are words used to refer to someone or something in context so that we can avoid repetition in the process of communication. In fact, most languages in the world, including English and Vietnamese, have this type of word. However, each language has its own characteristics. The use of Vietnamese pronouns, especially personal pronouns, may cause lots of confusion for English people who learn Vietnamese. Therefore, this paper aims at exploring personal pronouns in English and Vietnamese in a contrastive view, especially in the ways they are used. Then, I will suggest some implications for language teaching so that the process of L2 acquistion can be better.

What are personal pronouns?

In general, “personal pronouns are pronouns used as substitutes for proper or common nouns” (Wikipedia, “Personal pronoun”). In the example following, “her”, “she”, “it” and “me” are personal pronouns.

Mary took out her book. Then, she gave it to me.

Personal pronouns in English

According to Heather MacFadyen, forms of English personal pronouns vary according to case, person, number, and gender (“What is a Pronoun?”).

In term of case, in general, there are three cases depending on the grammatical role of the personal pronouns in a sentence: subjective, objective and possessive (Megginson, “Noun and Pronoun Characteristics”).

- In subjective case, the personal pronouns are used as the subject of a verb, such as I, you, we, he, she, it, and they (Megginson, “Noun and Pronoun Characteristics”). For example: I am a student.

- In objective case, they are used as the object of a verb or a preposition, such as me, you, us, him, her, it, and them (Megginson, “Noun and Pronoun Characteristics”). For example: How can you stand living with them?

- In possessive case, they are used as markers of possession and define who owns a particular object or person, such as mine, yours, ours, his, hers, its, theirs (Megginson, “Noun and Pronoun Characteristics”). For example: Her clothes are always clear while his are always dirty.

In term of person, personal pronouns in English have three persons: first person, second person and third person (Megginson, “Noun and Pronoun Characteristics”).

- First personal pronouns refer to the speaker or writer, such as I /me/mineand we/us/ours. For example: Bob told us about his family.

- Second personal pronouns refer to the addressee of the speaker or the audience of the writer, such as you/you/yours. For example: You must tell me the truth.

- Third personal pronouns refer to anyone else or others, such as he/him/his, she/her/hers, it/it/its/ and they/them/theirs. For example: She loves him.

In term of number, English personal pronouns are divided into singular and plural ones (Megginson, “Noun and Pronoun Characteristics”).

- Singular personal pronouns include I/me/mine, you/you/yours, she/her/hers, he/him/his and it/it/its. For example: It is a pen. Or Are you a doctor?

- Plural personal pronouns include we/us/ours, you/you/yours and they/them/theirs. For example: They will go with me tomorrow. Or Are you doctors?

In term of gender, English personal pronouns have three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter (Megginson, “Noun and Pronoun Characteristics”).

- Masculine personal pronouns involve male sexual organs, such as he/him/his. For example:

Tom is a naughty boy. He is always playing truant.

- Feminine personal pronouns involve female sexual organs, such as she/her/hers. For example: Mai is a good girl. She usually helps me.

- Neuter personal pronouns are used when the sexual state of referents is not mentioned, such asthey/them/theirs, it/it/its. For example: They are the books that my father bought me last year.

Above are all English personal pronouns categorized in term of case, person, number and gender. To make it brief, I have summarized all in the following table:

English Personal Pronouns







































Personal pronouns in Vietnamese

The system of Vietnamese personal pronouns is absolutely more complicated than the one of English. Not only age, gender, person but also the social context, attitude of the speaker to the listener as well as the relationship between the speaker and listener are indicated through the way Vietnamese choose personal pronouns in every day communication. There are two branches in the system of Vietnamese personal pronouns: true personal pronouns and kinship terms (Wikipedia, “Vietnamese Pronouns”).

True personal pronouns are catergorised into first person, second person and third person.

- First personal pronouns in singular forms include: tôi, ta, mình, tao… Tôi is usually used in polite speech (Ex: This is a statement in a wedding: “Tôi xin chân thành cám ơn sự có mặt của quý vị trong buổi lễ ngày hôm nay”). Ta is often used when someone talks to himself/herself (Ex: When someone is wavering between coming back or staying on, he may ask himself: “Ta nên đi hay nên ở lại đây?”) or it can be used to indicate the higher status of the speaker to the addressee (Ex: A boss may say to his charwoman: “Hãy chuẩn bị mọi thứ sẵn sàng cho ta”). Mình is also used for soliloquy (Ex: When someone encourage himself, he may say: “Mình cần phải cố hơn nữa!”). Tao is used in informal case when the speaker and the addressee have a close relationship (Ex: A pupil want to borrow his friend’s picture book, he may say: “Cho tao mượn cuốn truyện này nha”) or when the speaker is angry with the listener (Ex: “Tao sẽ đánh cho mày nhừ xương”).

- Second personal pronouns in singular forms include: mày, mi, bạn…Mày is used in close relationship or informal social context (Ex: A sister may ask her brother: “Mày đang làm cái gì đó?”). Mi is usually used for familiar relationship in the Middle area of Vietnam; it has the same function as mày. Bạn is used to creat friendly atmosphere (Ex: An MC could ask a contestant in a gameshow: “Bạn có thể giớ thiệu về bản thân mình cho khán giả được biết không ạ?”).

- Third personal pronouns in singular forms include: nó, y, hắn, gã, ả…Nó is often used to refer to animals, things or children (Ex: “Chiếc bàn này được làm từ gỗ quý nên nó có giá rất cao”). Y and hắn are both used to refer to someone scorned or untrustworthy (Ex: When you accuse someone as a criminal, you could say: “Hắn là một tên tội phạm”). and are both ofetn used to refer to someone unliked, however, Vienamese use for male and for female (Ex: A girl talks about a man who makes her annoyed: “Gã thật là phiền phức” while the man could say: “Ả thật là đánh đá”).

The plural forms of first, second and third personal pronouns can be created by adding the words like “chúng”, “tụi”, “bọn” such as: chúng tôi, tụi nó, bọn mày, bọn tao….(Ex: This is a statement in a wedding: “Chúng tôi xin chân thành cám ơn sự có mặt của quý vị trong buổi lễ ngày hôm nay”). However, we can also use “họ” as the plural form of a third personal pronoun without adding any words (Ex: Instead of saying: “Tụi nó là bạn của tôi”, one can say: “Họ là bạn của tôi” with a more formal level).

The other branch of Vietnamese personal pronouns is kinship terms which are the most popular ways Vietnamese use to refer oneself and others. Even though the listener is not a family member or relative, kinship terms can also used as pronouns to address and refer to friends and unfamiliar interlocutors (Luong, 1990). The system of these kinship terms is quite complicated and they can different according to specific areas, so in this paper I just mention some typical ones.

- Parents and children relationship: cha-con (father-children) and mẹ-con (mother-children). For example, a child talks to her mother: “Tối nay, mẹ và con đi siêu thị nhé!The term cha-con is also used in the relationship between parish priests and Christian believers.

- Sibling relationship: anh-em (older brother-younger brother/sister) and chị-em (older sister-younger brother/sister). For example, a little boy says to his sister: “Ba bảo chị một lát chở em đi học.” A person can also use anh/ chị to refer people who are in the same generation and older than him/her, and use em to prefer people who are in the same generation and younger than him/her.

- Grandparents and grandchildren relationship: ông-cháu (grandfather-grandson/granddaughter), bà-cháu (grandmother- grandson/granddaughter). For example, an old man talks to his niece: “Để ông kể cho cháu nghe chuyện Tấm-Cám nhé!” The terms ông-cháu and bà-cháu can also be used when a person talks to people who seem to be as old as his/her grandparents.

- Uncle and niece/nephew relationship: chú-cháu (father’s younger brother-nice/nephew), bác-cháu (parents’ older brother- nice/nephew), cậu-cháu (mother’s younger brother- nice/nephew), dượng-cháu (ant’s husband- nice/nephew). For example, a man may talk to his nephew: “Cậu có quà cho cháu này.” The term chú-cháu is also used when a person talks to a male who is the same age or younger than his/her parents whereas bác-cháu is used when a person talks to a male who is older than his/her parents.

- Ant and niece/nephew relationship: cô-cháu (father’s younger sister- nice/nephew), dì-cháu (mother’s younger sister- nice/nephew), bác-cháu (parents’ older sister- nice/nephew), mợ-cháu (uncle’s wife on the maternal side-nice/nephew), thím-cháu (uncle’s wife on the paternal side- nice/nephew). For example, a woman may say to her niece: “Cháu của dì hôm nay giỏi quá!” The term dì-cháu or cô-cháu is also used when a person talks to a female who is younger than his/her parents while bác-cháu is used when a person talks to a female who is older than his/her parents.

To make the third-person forms of the kinship terms above, the word “ấy” is added behind them such as ông ấy, bà ấy, thím ấy, dì ấy, chú ấy, chị ấy, anh ấy…For example: Lan là chị của tôi. Chị ấy rất thương tôi.

Within this paper, I would like to discuss the contrast between English and Vietnamese personal pronouns in ways they are used.

Firstly, there are different pronouns in English that indicate subject vs. predicate position (eg. “he” vs. “him”) while Vietnamese pronouns remain the same without indicating subject vs. predicate position (Erickson 199-203).


- He is Mary’s boyfriend. I met him at Mary’s birthday party last week.

- Anh ấy là bạn trai của Mary. Tôi đã gặp anh ấy trong buổi tiệc sinh nhật của Mary vào tuần trước.

Secondly, English has possessive pronouns to indicate the possessor of another noun (eg. “mine”, “yours”, “his”, “hers”). In contrast, possessive pronouns do not exist in Vietnamese; in stead, the word “của” is used to indicate the possession.


My coat is pink. Yours is blue.

Áo khoát của tôi màu hồng. Cái của bạn màu xanh.

Thirdly, because of the dominance of ellipsis, Vietnamese pronouns have low frequency as compared to English pronouns (Thu, “The Functioning of Pronouns in Vietnamese and English”).


He said that he would go to Hanoi the following month.

Anh ấy nói sẽ đi Hà Nội vào tháng tới. (The subject of reported clause is omitted).

Finally, the choice of pronouns in Vietnamese, especially kinship terms, is strongly influenced by semantic and pragmatic factors while this is not the case in English (Thu, “The Functioning of Pronouns in Vietnamese and English”). For example: In English, we use only the pronoun “he” for referring to both brother and father; however, in Vietnamese, we have to use the pronoun “ông ấy” for referring to father and the pronoun “anh ấy” for referring to brother.

Through a contrastive view into Vietnamese and English personal pronouns above, I would like to suggest some implications for English and Vietnamese teaching and learning.

Firstly, language teachers have to pay much attention to semantic and pragmatic factors such as age, sex, social status, relationship, attitudes and feelings of the speaker and addressee, as well as the formality of the context in the process of teaching Vietnamese pronouns. Towards English people who learn Vietnamese, teachers should explain clearly the different meanings of each Vietnamese personal pronoun, especially the kinship terms in specific contexts. For example, to utter the sentence “I love you” in Vietnamese, we should consider the relationship, sex and even social status between the speaker and the listener. If the speaker is a female and the listener is a male, the utterance should be “Em yêu anh”. On contrast, if the speaker is a male and the listener is a female, the utterance should be “Anh yêu em”. However, if the utterance is said by people in a family, the personal pronouns must be change: “Mẹ yêu con” for the mother to her child and “Con yêu mẹ” for the child to his/her mother, “Bà yêu cháu” for the grandmother to her grandchild and “Cháu yêu bà” for the grandchild to his/her grandmother. Besides, if the utterance is said by a girl to a man who has much higher social status than her, she may say “Em yêu ngài”.

Secondly, when sudden change of personal pronouns in Vietnamese contexts appears, it is the teacher’s duty to explain clearly the reason for such change. The following example will make the suggestion more clear:

This is the conservation between a father and his daughter when the father wants to forbid his daughter’s love for her boyfriend.

Ba: Con hãy bỏ thằng đó đi. Nó không thể mang hạnh phúc đến cho con đâu.

Con gái: Nhưng con đã lỡ yêu anh ấy rồi, ba ơi!

Ba: Nghe lời ba đi con. Bỏ thằng đó đi. Ba sẽ tìm cho con một người tốt hơn.

Con gái: Con xin lỗi ba, nhưng con không thể.

Ba: Vậy thì mày hãy ra khỏi nhà tao để đi theo thằng đó luôn đi.

In the conservation above, we can see the sudden change from “cha-con” to “mày-tao” when the father gets angry because he fails to convince her daughter to leave her boyfriend. Moreover, the daughter’s boyfriend is refered differently according to the attitude of the utterer. He is called “nó”, “thằng đó” by the father with scornful attitude, but the daughter use the pronoun “anh ấy” to call him respectfully.

Thirdly, English teachers should help their Vietnamese students get aquainted with using possessive and objective pronouns which do not exist in Vietnamese. For example, the sentence “Mặc dù đã cố gắng rất nhiều nhưng sự vụng về của khiến cho mọi người không muốn giao nhiệm vụ cho ” is translated into English “Although he tried a lot, his awkwardness made nobody want to commission him” with the consideration of subjective, objective position as well as possessive case.

Last but not least, ellipsis is dominant in Vietnamese while it is not the case in Eglish. Therefore, English teachers should help Vietnamese students make sentences correctly by avoiding ellipsis, especially at the beginning of conservation. The example below will make clear this point:

A and B meet each other in the street by chance.

In Vietnamese

In English

A: Đi đâu đó?

B: Đi chợ.

A: Where are you going?

B: I’m going to the market.

In conclusion, each language has its distinct characters, so it is not easy at all to acquire a second language effectively. The differences of using personal pronouns in English and Vietnamese, for example, are problems that learners need to make their efforts to adapt. With this research paper, I hope that readers can distinguish the personal pronouns in English in comparison with personal pronouns in Vietnamese. Then, we can find out more effective solutions to help learners grasp the using of personals pronouns between the two languages more easily. It is obvious that this paper cannot avoid shortcomings, so your useful contributions are welcomed.


Erickson, J. English. In J. Garry & C. Rubino, eds. Facts about the world’s languages: An encyclopedia of the world’s major languages, past, and present. New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 2001.

Luong, H. V. Discursive practices and linguistic meanings: The Vietnamese system of person reference. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1990.

Megginson, David. “Noun and Pronoun Characteristics.” uOttawa. 16 Aug. 2007. 25 Dec. 2009


MacFadyen, Heather. “What is a Pronoun?” uOttawa. 10 Oct. 2008. 25 Dec. 2009 <http://www.arts.uottawa.ca/writcent/hypergrammar/pronouns.html>.

“Personal pronoun.” Wikipedia.25 Dec. 2009. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 25 Dec. 2009 .

Thu, N.T.K. “The Functioning of Pronouns in Vietnamese and English.” Vu Giao Duc Dai Hoc. 11 Jan. 2006. Vu Dai hoc va Sau Dai hoc. 28 Dec. 2009 . “Vietnamese pronouns.” Wikipedia. 30 Oct. 2009. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 28 Dec. 2009 .

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