A pro-form is a word, substituting for other words, phrases, clauses, or sentences, whose meaning is recoverable from the linguistic or extralinguistic context.

But how do you establish a word as a proform and are there rules that guide the classification of a Pro-Form?


Schachter, Paul. 1985. "Parts-of-speech systems." In Shopen 1985b 24–25

Crystal, David. 1985.A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics. 2nd edition. New York: Basil Blackwell. 247


  • 1
    Pronouns are well known; perhaps this Wikipedia article on pro-verbs will help you. I'm not clear what you mean by 'establish one': do you mean 'identify when one is being used'? Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 18:57
  • 2
    @EdwinAshworth well a quick google search would tell you that, Pronoun comes under the banner of a Pro-Form along with Interrogative Pro-Form, Pro-Adjective, Pro-Adverb, Pro-Verb
    – Knotwood V
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 19:21
  • If the question has a definition of "pro-form" from a source, the source must be attributed. Apart from that, the OP needs to provide more context; and as weird as it might sound, focus. Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 19:53
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    @Cascabel, Schachter, Paul. 1985. "Parts-of-speech systems." In Shopen 1985b 24–25, Crystal, David. 1985.A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics. 2nd edition. New York: Basil Blackwell. 247 - glossary.sil.org/term/pro-form , cascabel did google go down or somthing ?
    – Knotwood V
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 20:53
  • 4
    A great deal depends on the language. English uses do as a pro-verb in several ways, but that's the only really big one. There are languages with a couple dozen that are used in almost every sentence, if you want to call them pro-verbs instead of "small verbs" or whatever term is current. As for NPs, in a language like Malay, pronoun is an open class; for instance, any noun that has human reference may be used as a personal pronoun.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 0:42

2 Answers 2


I will start by analyzing the definition of pro-forms to come to a conclusion about how to classify words as pro-forms.

A pro-form is a word, substituting for other words, phrases, clauses, or sentences, whose meaning is recoverable from the linguistic or extralinguistic context.

We can see from this definition that a pro-form is defined by its semantics, and it is basically a variable, substituting for other things.

Semantic category

A statement that contains a free variable is not a statement anymore. That is why every variable is immediately bound, and how it is bound is codified in the "semantic category" of the pro-form. The equation "x+1 = 3" has no truth value, but we can

  1. ask for the answer. This gives us relative and interrogative pro-forms like "who", "how", "which".
  2. have x defined before. This gives us demonstrative and personal pro-forms, that reference deictically ("I", "here", "his") or phorically ("this", "so").
  3. quantify the answers. This gives us indefinite and negative pro-forms, like "none", "any", "all", "many", "somebody".

Those three cases behave very differently! The first case is the easiest to detect, transforming statements into questions. The second case can be detected by checking if changing context and speaker changes meaning: "I", "you" become different persons and "here" becomes a different point in time. For the last one, you check if need to substitute every possible value to be sure if the statement is correct: At worst, you need to check every car in the world to see if "Some car has 51 wheels" is true.

But all have in common that the truth value of the phrase becomes a function of the truth value if you substitute something at the place of the pro-form.

Function and Scope

The second part of the pro-form is its function in the sentence. For example, it might designate a time, like "then" or "now". Now, only substituting things in that have a notion of time makes sense. But pro-forms can also further restrict the scope of possible referents, for example "he" and "she" mandate that the referent is in some sense male or female.

But other words reference too

The biggest problem in classifying pro-forms is that other words also use references. The meaning of comparatives like "bigger" depends on what they are compared to, in languages with pro-drop, the subject might be taken from context and languages without articles can use bare nouns to reference something.

What's the difference between "he" and "the male"? Is "differently" a pro-form or not?

It is not really possible to draw a clear-cut line here. Some suggestions:

  1. Does it do "much more" than just substituting? "bigger" is specifying a quantity "size". But e.g. Japanese "もっと motto" (more than it) does not. What about "more"? The function of the pro-form has to be simple. "here" is specifying a place, but "today" is specifying a day. Is this too special?
  2. Does is reference differently than "normal" words of the functional class? "the male" references just like a noun, while "he" works a bit differently.
  3. Does it behave syntactically differently than "normal" words of the functional class? "other" has some syntactical properties "different" and other adjectives haven't.


To check if a word is pro-form, check if it references something (see Semantic Category) and if it references differently than other words with the same function.


You establish that something is a pro-form because if you try to parse the sentence into a semantic or logical form of what it is saying, it requires you to fill in a missing piece of information.

For example, “apple” somehow contains its own reference. It is a token which represents a thing, called an apple.

“It” refers to something, but it doesn’t say itself what it refers to.

A pro-form is a semantic place-holder.

It is analogous to the idea of a “trace” in syntax.

In syntax, a trace is a part of a syntactic component which is left empty. In surface structure, you do not see it. But according to the theory, a slot to be fulfilled is still there in the structure.

Any word can be turned into a pro-form artificially as an exercise by substituting it with a blank.

This X contains a pro-form.

Where “X” referred to “sentence” (in my mind).

Pro-forms do not have to be completely blank. They can carry information to help you resolve their incompleteness.

For example, pronouns can be gendered in English, and they indicate a word class (noun). So for “he”, the search for a referent is greatly narrowed down to i) things which are male ii) things (which are nouns).

In English, it appears that every pro-form makes its syntactic category clear, which is interesting to note and to question why. I do not know a common pro-form that is a true blank, except just saying “X” or blank, as I did above.

We can explore what other properties of word classes pro-forms carry.

Pronouns carry number, gender, and person, in English (I think). There is also a degree of variation for formality or register or manner of expression, like “you guys”.

I guess “such” conveys missing attribute information (a predicate, an adjective), but syntactically it doesn’t mirror adjectives or predicates perfectly: a green car -> such a car (not a such car, in my idiolect).

If information is missing but it’s supposed to be filled in, that’s a pro-form. “Something” is not a pro form because it doesn’t imply you know what I’m talking about. “It” carries a heavy sense of context with it where it sounds like I expect you know what I’m referring to.

Compare “somewhere” (a place I have not specified) vs. “there” (a place I specified before).

You might hypothesize there are not pro-forms for grammatical words like “some” or “a” or “the” because there is no semantic information to be replaced.

Or you could hypothesize that it is possible since a pro-form just substitutes a word, or any element of sentence meaning, not just semantic referents.

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