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.