Are all pro-forms the same in that they have to have antecedents and postcedents in the conversation to have any meaning? For example, the word "it" derives its meaning from a noun located either just before or just after the pronoun "it". Also, the word "Yes" is a pro-sentence, and it derives its meaning from a statement just said, for example, "Pizza is delicious." and then someone says "Yeah.". Would the person's "Yeah." mean "Yeah, pizza is delicious.", or is the meaning of a pro-form derived from something else?

  • Adding references would improve chances of an answer.
    – Edwin Ashworth
    Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 7:59
  • PRO or pro? A small, but important difference ;) Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 11:00
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    @lemontree, what is the difference between PRO and pro?
    – GFD1998
    Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 20:22
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    @jlawler & GDF1998 For German the difference is quite straightforward: While pro is semantically empty and does not affect the verb's valency, PRO will always fill an argument position of the verb. In general, PRO occurs in non-finite phrases, pro in finite ones. However, pro behaves differently across languages; in Italian pro can be referential (-> pro-drop), so I admit the difference is not always that obvious. But as long as there are languages in which there is a gramm. difference (at least German, also Dutch I think), I find it plausible to assume that there is pro and a distinct PRO. Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 21:50
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    However, reading through the question and the answers more closely, GFD1998 seems to refer to a different kind of pro than I was assuming (I was thinking of phonetically empty subjects, but this doesn't seem to make sense in this context), so my pointing out the difference might have been somewhat misplaced... Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 21:53

3 Answers 3


yes and no. a proform by definition must refer to something else, but that "something else" need not be linguistic. For example, Joe says something crazy. I point my index finger to my temple and swirl it (meaning, that's nutty). Sally points at me and says "he's right" or "that's right" or similar. I haven't said anything, but everybody understands Sally's point.

  • I am interested more with verbal and or written communication rather than nonverbal communication. Would someone have to say a referent in a conversation before using a pro-form for the pro-form to have any meaning whatsoever?
    – GFD1998
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 23:02
  • 'He is right' has no pro-form, and 'that is right' has a demonstrative, which isn't always considered a pro-form. Weather 'it' (it is raining, it is late, it seems that ...) is a pro-form whose antecedent (a moment in time) need not be stated.
    – amI
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 19:59
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    "He" is not a proform??? Please explain
    – mobileink
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 20:02
  • @ami: "whether"?
    – mobileink
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 20:05
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    @GFD1998: Unequivocally no. What's critical is a common understanding, which can be implicit. If I say "Fermat's last theorem is true", and you are a mathematician, you will understand me even though neither of us has explicitly articulated the theorem in our conversation. Of course, somebody (like Fermat) must have articulated it.
    – mobileink
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 20:11

Brainstorming a bit turns up a lot of examples, it seems. Sometimes it will boil down to definition (are demonstratives pro-forms), but even excluding demonstratives, I can think of quite a lot:

(1) Generic pronouns:

 *On*     ne  sait pas.
 *3sg.*   NEG know NEG. (French)
 *One* does not know / We can't tell

(2) Speech act participants: I'm a little teaport, short and stout.

(2) Reflexives in nominalised VPs:

不  患    人      之  不  *己* 知
Bu  huan  ren    zhi bu  *ji*     zhi
NEG worry others GEN NEG *self*   know (Old Chinese)
Do not worry about others' not knowing the *self*

(3) Reciprocals in nominalised VPs: Knowing each other well is important for teamwork.

(4) Pro-sentences in polar questions:

Ana    ruwa, *ko*?
one.is rain  *or*
Is it raining or **not**? (Hausa - Schachter and Shopen 2007)

(5) Answers to questions: The original sentence in the OP if it came from this conversation:

A: Is pizza delicious?
B: *No*!

Since the statement 'Pizza is not delicious' never appeared in the conversation.


Schachter, P. and Shopen, T. (2007). Parts of speech. In Shopen, T. (ed.), Language typology and syntactic description (Vol. 3). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Most pro-forms will denote things which are more explicitly discussed in the conversation, but some do not.

One example is the English word now, which (IMO) should be analysed as a pro-preposition. Now stands in for a temporal phrase, such as at this moment in time, but only rarely would a speaker also refer to that moment with a full prepositional phrase.

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    Note the equivalence of 'now' and weather 'it'.
    – amI
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 20:00

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