Personal Pronouns: Unstressed Function Words
Personal pronouns are the most basic pronouns used to take the place of a noun or a noun phrase. Grammatically, they can be the subject of the sentence (I, he, she, it, you, we, and they) or the object of the sentence (me, him, her, it, you, us, and them).
|I|| like ||him.
|He|| likes ||her.
|She|| likes ||it.
|It|| likes ||us.
|You|| like ||them.
|They|| like ||me.
Personal pronouns are function words; their purpose is to provide a grammatical shortcut rather than to provide details. Like other function words, personal pronouns are not usually stressed.
Along with being unstressed, the personal pronouns he, him, her, and them can be further reduced by omitting the first consonant sound. Notice that the pronunciation of a reduced him can have a nearly identical pronunciation as a reduced them.
If the pronoun is the first word of a sentence or is stressed to give it special meaning (see below), the pronoun may not be reduced.
In the sentence He likes her, the pronoun her can be reduced, but the pronoun he, since it it the first word of the sentence, cannot be reduced. In the sentence I think he likes her, however, both he and her can be reduced.
Similarly, in the sentence Her car is missing,
the pronoun her
cannot be reduced, though it can be reduced in the sentence She gave her car to them
, because it is no longer the first word of the sentence.
Subject pronouns and contractions
Subject pronouns are often contracted with the verbs to be, to have, will, and would. Unless a special meaning is intended, these contractions are also unstressed.
Stressing personal pronouns often emphasizes that one person or persons is being contrasted with another. A change in pitch often accompanies the pronoun that has been brought into focus through stress. When this happens, the overall rhythm and intonation of the sentence changes, sometimes significantly.
In the following sentences, a potential meaning of the change in rhythm and intonation is provided in parentheses. Compare the stress patterns of these sentences with the sentences above.
A more complex example shows double pronoun contrast occuring within a single sentence. Note also that the pronouns them and her cannot be pronounced them and her (omitting the initial consonant sound) when then they are stressed in a sentence.
To sum up
While personal pronouns are usually unstressed in spoken English, a desire to show contrast is one common reason to stress them. Because the pronunciation of the pronoun, along with the meaning and overall rhythm of a sentence, can change so dramatically when a personal pronoun is stressed, pronunciation of both stressed and unstressed pronouns should be practiced, even by beginner ELL/ESL students.