Comparative Analysis of Pronouns He/She in English and Vietnamese

This paper attempts to provide a brief overview of pronouns He/She in English and Vietnamese. Based on previous works in the field, a comparison is made between the two languages may well give a glimpse into the characteristic of pronouns He/She in English and their varieties in Vietnamese, thereby proposing a few recommendations for learners of English and Vietnamese.


For every language, addressing is an inevitable requirement in any form of communication. However, personal pronouns sometimes confuse English and Vietnamese learners due to differences in cultures, lifestyle and linguistic types. Moreover, the Vietnamese language is considered as a complicated language with various pronouns in which pronouns “he” and “she” are shown in innumerable ways. Therefore, this paper is carried out to give a general overview at some usual situations in which third person personal pronouns “He/She” are used.

Personal pronoun in English

Halliday & Hasan (1976) claimed that personal pronouns are referents used to refer to specific things or people being spoken about. Those pronouns can be characterized by grammatical categories, which are person (first, second, third), case, number (singular and plural) and gender. Pronouns “He/She” belong to the third person singular pronouns in terms of person and number. They also have those characteristics of gender and case as other pronouns. Quirk (1861) stated that cases show the relations between substitutes with other words in a sentence including nominative case (subjective case) and accusative case (objective case). According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the third person singular pronouns “he/she” are used to denote male and female person mentioned or known already with masculine and feminine features.

Personal pronoun in Vietnamese

Nguyen (1997) stated that Vietnamese personal pronouns are used to indicate or substitute people’s name. Besides, there are a great number of personal pronouns denoting family members and relative. Outstandingly, Vietnamese language also owns a lot of third singular person pronouns with different forms and distinctive shade of meanings such as “anh, chị, hắn, y, thị, etc, …”.


He/She in English

As mentioned above, pronouns “he/she” also have those personal pronouns’ characteristics as person, case, gender, number criteria. In terms of person, pronouns he/she represent for the third person. In terms of number, he/she are in singular form. This part will go into detail the case and gender characteristic.


Grammatically, the case determines the syntactic positions of pronouns and defines the pronoun’s forms. In the third person pronouns “he/she”, there are two sets of case-form including nominative case (or subjective case) and accusative case (or objective case), which stand for he/she and him/her respectively. Kerl (1861) explained that a personal pronoun is considered as a nominative case when it is used as a subject of a finite verb or a subject complement (predicative nominative). In other words, those pronouns have to be in the position of the subject preceding a verb doing actions or in the position of subject complement. The book The University Grammar of English (1987) illustrated this point by an example: “He hoped the passenger would be Mary and indeed it was she”. In this context, the pronoun “he” is regarded as the subject of the nominative case and followed by a finite verb “hoped”.

Meanwhile, the objective case is used when the personal pronoun is the direct or indirect object of the verb and object of the preposition. In the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wrote: “I didn’t want him to try”. The word “him” is considered as a direct object in the accusative case. In addition to that, Kerl clarified that noun or pronoun required after a preposition to make sense is also in the accusative case. For example, Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice that “She danced four dances with him at Meryton; she saw him one morning at his own house, and has since dined with him in company four times”. The words “him” in bold are objects of preposition because they are indirect objects of the action and follows the preposition “with”.


While the third plural pronoun “they/them” are not characterized by gender, the third person singular pronouns “he/she” differentiate between masculine (he/him) and feminine (she/her). Both masculine and feminine pronouns are considered as substitutes for things or subjects, apart from a proper name. Obviously, men were often represented by dominance, authority, and control while women leaned towards the softer and more domestic of life. As a result, the pronoun “he” denotes strong objects, terrible ideas such as rivers or mountains and the pronoun “she” represents for beauty and nice concepts such as ships, towns, cities, and countries. For example, the author Foecke (2008) used the pronoun “she” to replace the word “Titanic” to avoid the repetition when describing the Titanic’s furniture in the following context: “Titanic was built between 1911 and 1912. She was constructed of thousands of one-inch-thick mild steel plates and two million steel and wrought iron rivets and equipped with the latest technology”. For decades, the ship is the demonstration of charming and delicacy. As a result, the author replaced “Titanic’ by the pronoun “she” instead of “he”.

Moreover, sometimes pronouns “he/she” are regarded as elements referring to animals. For example, Soichet (2018) called the dolphin as she in the following sentence: “She was nicknamed "Ponchita" and would be the first female dolphin tagged”. Also, masculine pronouns he/him are used to refer to the human being or to a group including both sexes.

He/she in Vietnamese

According to Nguyen (2002), personal pronouns play a vital role in Vietnamese. Because of its characteristic, Vietnamese personal pronouns cannot be considered according to case, number or gender as they are in English. On the other hand, it must depend on contexts and outside factors. Therefore, in order to help readers understand pronouns he/she in Vietnamese easily, this paper will classify them due to 3 aspects: age, speakers’ attitude and dialect. Influence of ageIt cannot be denied that the age ranking system plays a vital role, which creates a favorable condition for people to use personal pronoun effectively. He also noted that the age factor has a great impact on the way people using pronouns, which is illustrated as the table below: He/him She/herIf the person is much older than the speaker (approximately the same age as grandparents) Ông ấy, ông ta, … Bà ấy, bà ta, …If the person is a bit older than the speaker (approximately the same age as sisters/brothers) Anh ấy, anh ta, … Chị ấy, chị ta, cô ấy, cô ta, …If the person is younger than the speaker Em ấy, nó.

Influence of the speakers’ attitude

In terms of speakers’ attitude, Nguyen (2004) divided Vietnamese personal pronouns into 3 aspects as the table below. Positive Neutral NegativeHe Anh/Ông/ Cụ/ Chàng/ Ngài/ Người/, … Anh ấy/ Cậu ấy/ Ông ấy/ Anh ta/ Cậu ta/ Ông ta/. . . Gã/ Hắn/ Y/ Lão/ Thằng cha ấy/ Thằng khỉ ấy/ Thằng chó ấy. . . She Chị/ Cô/ Bà/ Nàng/ Người. . . . Chị ấy/ Cô ấy/ Bà ấy/ Chị ta/ Cô ta/ Bà ta. . . Mụ/ Ả/ Thị/ Con mụ ấy/ Cái mụ ấy. . . t can be clearly seen that this characteristic has been illustrated in many famous works in Vietnam. For instance, in the story “Vo nhat” by Kim Lan, the author utilized the pronoun “thị” to replace for the word “woman” in the sentence: “Người đàn bà có vẻ khó chịu lắm. Thị nhíu đôi lông mày lại, …” (The woman seems to be annoyed. She raised her eyebrows…). According to many Vietnamese dictionaries, the pronoun “thi” is used to refer to the woman in the working class with a disrespectful attitude. Therefore, the readers only need one or two sentences to not only understand the attitude of the writer to the character but also have a general overview of the character. In contrast, readers have to read a whole context to know how the speaker feels about the third person in this situation in English. Influence of dialectIn addition, it is true that each region has its own dialect, which might be considered as a huge challenge when foreigners learning Vietnamese. To be more specific, in Nghe An province, people have a tendency to make use of the pronoun “o ay” instead of “co ay” or “chi ay”. He also indicated that Hue people have the habit of using the pronoun “han”, which stands for both sexes in spoken language, apart from Nghe An. Also, in the southern region, local people tend to turn the pronoun “anh ấy” to “ảnh”, “cô ấy” to “cổ”, “ông ấy” to“ổng”, “bà ấy” to “bả”.


The present paper gives a broad overview of the pronoun “He/She” in English and Vietnamese. In general, “He/She” in both languages is used to substitute, refer or indicate the nouns which have been or will be mentioned in order to avoid repetition in both communication and academic writings. However, due to the complexity of the Vietnamese, pronouns He/She in Vietnam are also more flexible and complicated compared to English, which can lead to several problems for learners.


Accordingly, it is highly recommended that knowledge about personal pronouns, especially pronouns He/She, should be taken into account in both communication and translation. Once translating the text from English to Vietnamese in academic documents, students should read the text carefully to define what the context is and what the third singular person pronouns are to render the text in a flexible way, which can avoid repetition. Besides, in terms of daily conversation in Vietnamese, the use of personal pronouns reflects the cultural understanding of a person. Hence, it is essential for people to choose the pronouns carefully to communicate much more effectively.

18 March 2020
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