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Expository Pronoun

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On the use of tu vs. vous in French. It gets much more complicated.

Pronouns are the most commonly used words to designate the people we're talking to or about. In fiction, they can also be an easy shorthand to showcase a characters' personality or his relationship with other characters, through the use of specific pronouns to refer to themself or others.

In European languages there are often two pronouns for second person (normal and polite "you", for example tu/vous in French, tu/lei in Italian, du/Sie in German, or tú/usted in Spanish) and three for third person (masculine, feminine, object/impersonal). So for example, a character can use the familiar "you" where the polite form would be expected to show that they are rude or not familiar with social norms. The misuse can also be deliberately offensive, out of sheer hostility or rebelliousness.

Other languages have more options. East-Asian languages tend to have a variety of first- and second-person pronouns depending on character, social status, context, level of politeness, etc — Japanese has an especially large variety. Thus, the pronouns used will give us an immediate glimpse of the kind of person a character is — especially if it isn't the one you would assume at first glance — and what kind of relationship they have with others.

This can be a headache for translators, as these kinds of subtleties don't always translate very well from one language to another. See Pronoun Trouble and Gender Vocabulary Slip for classic occurrences.

Bokukko, "It" Is Dehumanizing and Royal "We" are subtropes. Compare Third-Person Person for characters that never use a first person pronoun.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Attack on Titan: Eren has a Catapult Nightmare after experiencing his father's memories of his comrades and first wife getting Titanized, whereupon Armin notices Eren using his father's pronoun watashi instead of his usual ore.
  • Ayakashi Triangle:
    • In his flashback to around when he was born, Garaku used the rough, masculine pronoun ore. In the present, he uses the relaxed but still informal boku (men are more likely to do the opposite as they mature), indicating how he’s adopted a more laid-back attitude.
    • Despite Matsuri transforming from male to female, he keeps using the masculine pronoun ore while living as a girl. But when an ayakashi jutsu makes Matsuri lose his memories and act like a girl, "she" switches to watashi like most other female characters.
  • Blue Period: A sign of Ryuuji's fluctuation in gender identity comes when he suddenly starts using the very feminine personal pronoun atashi instead of the masculine ore, which he primarily used before. It's implied that this is in part to Ryuuji believing life would be easier for him if he just identified as a woman. Later, he's heard switching back and forth between the two, so where his actual identity stands is unclear.
  • Toward the end of the Bokurano manga, Jun Ushiro, who usually uses ore, switches to boku when speaking with the parents of Waku, the first pilot, so as to be polite. This eventually leads to Machi teasing him about his use of the pronoun, and finally, the Title Drop.
  • Digimon Adventure: In the original Japanese, Apocalymon uses wareware, "we", to refer to himself, as he's made up of the remains of all the Digimon who had failed to evolve and passed away. This is removed in the American dub, where he uses the singular "I".
  • Dragon Ball:
    • Son Goku normally uses the bumpkin-esque ora, but when he hits the Rage Breaking Point and first becomes a Super Saiyan, he switches to the more aggressive ore. Once he has better control of the transformation without needing to be enraged, he continues using ora.
    • Majin Buu initially uses ore along with simple sentences lacking kanji, but absorbing Piccolo (and Gotenks) boosts his intelligence to using more sophisticated speech and switching to the more formal watashi (despite Piccolo also using ore).
  • One Piece: Kanjuro uses soregashi, a humbling pronoun similar to sessha used by many of his fellow samurai. The moment he outs himself as The Mole for Orochi, casting aside any image as an honorable samurai, he switches to the informal ore.
  • Rurouni Kenshin: In the English translation, Kenshin always refers to himself in third person as "this one" (a Woolseyism of the Japanese verb de gozaru, signifying humility), while in Japanese he addresses himself with the humble sessha. However, when his Superpowered Evil Side Hitokiri Battousai takes over, he shifts to first person, and uses the more aggressive ore.
  • Transformers: Robots in Disguise has Railracer, the combined form of Team Bullet Train who refers to himself as "we" in contrast to other combiners.

    Comic Books 
  • Venom: Eddie Brock is the most known and longer host of the symbiote and the relationship of both is more like two different beings coexisting instead of one possessing the other, noticed when this is the only incarnation that speaks in "we" instead "I" included the comeback of Eddie Brock at the end of Vol. 3 with the famous "We're back" and the restart of Vol. 1 in 2017. Also noticed in his other appearances, specially Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes, where he introduces in the game with this catchphrase:
    Venom: (in his intro) We are Venom!

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Angel and the Badman, the Quakers all use "thee" when speaking to acquaintances; the use of "you" is reserved for close friends... "and between lovers, of course."
  • The Italian movie series Fantozzi is notorious for using the formal pronoun lei even where the informal tu would be used, e.g. between ostensible friends. This shows how the characters' Ye-Men habits are ingrained in their everyday life, and that they may not like each other as much as they pretend to, consistently with the movies' Crapsack World setting.
  • The Light Across the Street: Olivia's Lecherous Stepparent wants her to refer to him with the informal pronoun tu, but she sticks to a cold and formal vous since she hates him.
  • In Mortal Kombat, when Hanzo Hasashi first appears in the feudal era he uses washi, typically associated with older men. When he reappears at the climax of the movie, he's now using the aggressively masculine ore, showing how his experiences in Hell have changed him.
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire: It's the 18th century and Marianne and Héloïse are not social equals, so they address each other with the formal pronoun vous, even after becoming lovers. There are only two occasions when they use the informal tu: when Marianne is telling her not to fall asleep on their last night together ("Ne dors pas, ne dors pas..."), and when Héloïse tells Marianne to turn around just before she leaves ("Retourne-toi!").
  • Venom: Being more based on comic books than his previous appearance, the new incarnation of the Venom symbiote maintains the "we" instead of "I" as in the comics, as well the famous "We are Venom".
  • In the Indonesian film Whats Up With Love, Rangga points out that School Idol Cinta has switched from calling him lo to kamu, an intimate gesture for Jakartan highschoolers, which flusters the latter.

  • 20 Years After: Mousqueton asks d'Artagnan to refer to him as Mouston as the former is a clear indication that he was in the army as opposed to the Number Two of an obscenely rich landlord. D'Artagnan agrees and even throws in that he'll use vous from then on, as he's aware that Mousqueton is perfectly happy being Porthos' housekeeper but needs them to join him on a dangerous mission.
  • The Divine Comedy: In Paradiso, Saint Bernard's final speech manages to refer to the Virgin Mary with Italian's informal second-person pronoun (tu, te, ti, tuo, tua) seventeen different times, due to the Christian tradition of speaking to God and the Virgin using the phrasing one would use for one's own parents. The saint is introduced higher than other being and makes an intimate plea to an old widow he loves as his own mother. Through this child-like relationship with the Queen of the Universe, the protagonist is given the grace to see the Trinity in all its perfection, all because Bernard learned to call Mary tu.
  • I Am a Cat is one of the most famous examples in Japanese literature — the cat uses the noble pronoun wagahai (我輩/我が輩), which comically contrasts his not-so-noble position. Nearly all uses of wagahai in modern Japanese media are references to I Am a Cat.
  • Incarnations of Immortality: In For Love of Evil, Lilith starts using capitalized pronouns when referring to Parry after he assumes the office of Satan (the capital indicating reverence), although the author doesn't explain how this is apparent in spoken language.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Eowyn uses the archaic "thou/thee" to address others, which goes with the slightly outdated kind of speech the Rohirrim are supposed to speak. In fact, Antiquated Linguistics is common outside the Shire, moreso as you move east and especially south — so the hobbits' failure to distinguish between the formal and informal forms of "you" (as Modern English also does not) confuses the people of Rohan and Minas Tirith into thinking they must be very high-ranking nobles indeed, if they can get away with talking to Gandalf like that.
  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Gand, an insectoid species from the planet of the same name, had a complex social code for pronouns. When they are born, all Gand are simply called "Gand", as they are considered mere pieces of the same whole. A Gand that achieved major accomplishments is allowed to use their family name, and a given name is only granted after mastering a profession. Gand would almost always refer to themselves in the third person, with only the most legendary or arrogant Gand using first person pronouns (something that was only considered officially permitted if a council of Gand elders granted the right after careful consideration), as it was considered a presumption that the speaker was so important and famous that everyone already knew their name. Notably, even amongst those Gand who had earned their names, their choice of self-reference spoke a lot about their mood. A Gand who has a given name will typically use it, but if they are embarrassed or ashamed of something, they revert to using their surname and if they are truly mortified, they will revert to referring to themselves as merely "Gand" (implying that their conduct was so abhorrent that they do not deserve the honour associated with a name).

    Live-Action TV 
  • Kaamelott:
    • Characters always use second-person you (vous), yet refer to each other by first names (even among best friends and married couples), sometimes adding their title first, to contrast the formality of speech and the insults and Passive-Aggressive Kombat that usually follow.
    • Elias the Treacherous addresses Arthur with first-person you as a mark of disrespect, being an extremely powerful mage.
  • Kamen Rider:
  • Mimpi Metropolitan:
    • Bambang and Pipin who have just came from the countryside use formal first-person pronoun saya and use polite honorific and name instead of pronouns for others (although Pipin becomes a Third-Person Person as her naivety gets emphasized). Alan, who went to Jakarta a year ago, still acts like a Batak, so he uses informal first-person pronoun aku and keeps his Sumatran second-person pronoun kau. The others who have spent a long time in Jakarta uses Betawi pronouns gue and lo.
    • Discussed in Episode 58 when a waiter who sees Bambang and Melani dating assumes they're just friends because Melani uses gue and lo, rather than something more intimate like aku and kamu. Melani cringes at the thought of using intimate pronouns but eventually comes around in the finale.

  • In MILGRAM, Mikoto Kayano uses the humble boku, but his alter (eventually named John) uses the more aggressive ore. Though they presumably both sing in their songs, "MeMe" uses boku while "Double" uses ore. In Mikoto's second voice drama, John frequently uses boku to refer to the host.
    Because I (ore) was born to protect him (boku).

  • Cyrano de Bergerac: One of Cyrano's admirers makes the mistake of using tu with Cyrano when they barely know each other and is quickly rebuked.

    Video Games 
  • In Coffee Talk, Neil and Amanda refer to themselves with "we" because they're part of the same Hive Mind. In The Stinger of the first game, Neil has switched to using "I" to show how much they've improved at blending in on Earth.
  • Deltarune does something similar to Undertale in its Japanese localization, i.e. using pronouns to emphasize the characters' personalities. Spamton uses watakushi, which is a really formal and old-fashioned pronoun, fitting for an old, forgotten spam bot. However, because of his Electronic Speech Impediment, it's spelled "ワタ94" instead of the standard 私 or わたくし spelling.
  • Webber from Don't Starve predominantly refers to himself as "we", because he's a Mind Hive fusion between a human child and one of the local Giant Spider monsters. Occasionally, he'll use "I" when the child and the spider disagree or only one of them has experience with the current subject. This may also be why Webber is referred to in narration as "them" in the original Don't Starve (which can only be seen at the end of Adventure Mode) and "him" in Don't Starve Together.
  • In Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, there's very heavy subtext in the original dialogue, thanks to specific pronoun use, that the person most special to Sora that Naminé is replacing in his memories isn't in fact Kairi, but Riku. When Sora meets the other kids in his memory of the Destiny Islands, the pronoun they use for his 'special person' is aitsu (アイツ). The pronoun is casual and gender neutral but more masculine leaning (think of referring to someone as 'guy', regardless of gender), and it's generally considered rude/insulting to use the pronoun towards a girl. When Sora realizes Naminé has been tampering with his memories, she uses neutral pronouns to describe the person most special to him. However, in both Japanese and English, Sora assumes she means Kairi. But the full extent of Sora's misunderstanding is all but lost in the English translation, as it translates aitsu to feminine pronouns. In fact, the last time Sora sees the Riku Replica, he refers to him by aitsu in Japanese, but in English, just calls out his name instead. There is an attempt in the English translation of the Chain of Memories novel to rectify this at least, as the subtext from the game is mostly preserved, while also going further and implying that the memory of the meteor shower promise Naminé tampers with was actually between Sora and Riku. You can read about it in more detail here. Sora also uses aitsu to refer to Riku in Kingdom Hearts II, when he sees him at the top of the mountain in The Land of Dragons. This time, it's translated more accurately to "That guy..."
  • In Mass Effect, the Hanar consider it rude to refer to themselves in the first person. Therefore, they often refer to themselves as "this one".
  • Mortal Kombat: Ermac is a gestalt of numerous souls fused together by Shao Kahn and refers to himself as "we". D'Vorah refers to herself as "this one".
  • In Overwatch, Omnics (sapient robots, who rebelled and started a Robot War in the backstory and are an oppressed minority in the present) use different gender pronouns to help drive home the fact that they're essentially on the same level as humans. Zenyatta and Orisa go by "he" and "she" respectively, Bastion (who was churned out as a Mecha-Mook in the aforementioned war, but exhibits full sapience after being offline for decades) goes by "it" but is sometimes also called "he" in patchnotes or developer interviews, as is often done in English for a person of unknown or unclear gender, and the non-playable Lynx17 uses "they" (with Word of God clarifying that they identify as non-binary).
  • In Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth, Nagi, being highly polite, uses watakushi on herself and anata on other people, along with regularly using the '-san' honorific. When she assumes her true form as the god Enlil in the Final Boss fight, she uses ware on herself, omae on others, and drops the honorific from Hikari's name.
  • Shin Megami Tensei IV: The parallel versions of Akira each use different pronouns to demonstrate how different they are from one another despite being the same person.
    • Akira in the desert is the local Reasonable Authority Figure who uses the formal watashi for himself and the informal but polite kimi for the heroes.
    • In contrast, the Akira met in the city of flames radiates a 'tough guy' persona; he uses the casual, masculine, but slightly self-deprecating orecchi for himself and the similarly casual omee for the heroes, before nicknaming them with nii-chan.
    • The third Akira, the one from Flynn's timeline, uses the nonthreatening masculine boku in flashbacks.
  • Undertale: The Japanese translation uses pronouns to emphasize the characters' personalities:
    • Flowey uses the non-threatening boku and kimi because he hides his murderous intentions behind a happy mask. However, he will address you with the harsher omae when you piss him off enough. However, no matter how malevolent he acts, he never drops using boku to refer to himself, foreshadowing his true identity as Asriel, who also uses boku.
    • The Hot-Blooded Undyne uses the haughty kisama for the player character because of her disdain for humans.
    • Sans usually addresses the player character as the familiar anta when he's being goofy, but switches to omae when he needs to be intimidating. He refers to himself as oira, which is usually associated with bumpkin types, which Sans isn't. However, it fits his character on a meta level: it also shows how Sans tries to project a loser-ish, slacker image. During the "Lost Souls" fight and segments before he fights you on the worst route, he switches to ore.
    • Papyrus refers to himself as ore-sama (i.e. adding an honorific to the pronoun) because of his massive ego.

    Visual Novels 
  • In the second Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, Kay, who normally uses watashi on herself, shifts to atashi after losing her memory, which results in her being meeker and more timid. At the end of the chapter, upon regaining her memories, she returns to using her usual watashi.
  • Neil from Coffee Talk is an extraterrestrial who uses "we" instead of "I" to highlight their quite literal alien-ness. Going by their descriptions, Neil's species might also be some sort of Hive Mind. In the post-credits conversation, Neil has switched to using "I" to show how much they've improved at blending in on Earth.
  • In Chapter 9 of Psycholonials, during one of Zhen's dream sequences, the narrator (Z.'s Successor aspect) repeatedly uses "you" ambiguously, to the confusion of Zhen. The narrator then discusses the trope, noting the importance of pronouns to nonbinary people and describes "you" as a "clown car" able to fit untold numbers of people, before clarifying that "you" refers not to Zhen but to the untold number of players out there, whose decision it is to make.
  • Slow Damage:
    • Rei Izumi tends to use the atashi pronoun when referring to himself, which ties into his Ambiguous Gender Identity. During his Good Ending path, Rei comes to term with himself as a man, and he will switch to the ore pronoun.
    • Towa performs a horrific example during Fujieda's Bad Ending. His mind seems to have become broken after imitating his deceased mother and unable to easily break out of this stance anymore, with Towa using the watashi pronoun. This is what causes Fujieda to realize that something is horribly wrong, with only a few moments of Towa himself managing to break through and still use the ore pronoun he usually uses.
  • Umineko: When They Cry:
    • Yasu is a complex example, as she has created multiple personas and thus has various incarnations in the story, each using a different pronoun. As herself and as the servant Shannon, she uses watashi, the normal female pronoun. As Beatrice, she uses the archaic regal pronoun warawa to give her an elegant and haughty vibe. Kanon, the meek and gloomy boy persona, uses boku. And as Clair in Episode 7, she uses the formal ware for a theatrical effect.
    • Beatrice herself occasionally switches between the second person pronoun sonata (polite and archaic) and the rude omae when she drops the elegant facade.
  • We Know the Devil confirms that Venus is transgender by suddenly using "she" to refer to her (when the game up until this point consistently refers to her as "he") in the Yellow and True endings.
  • Your Turn to Die:
    • Reko Yabusame is an Ore Onna, but she occasionally switches to watashi, fitting for a gruff woman with a soft side. At one point, she is replaced with a doll doppelganger who is almost a perfect match except that she never uses watashi and remains harsh to people she would normally be kinder to. It turns out the doll's personality is a few years out of date, as the real Reko experienced a tragic event that brought out her gentler side shortly after the last personality update.
    • Alice Yabusame typically uses ore, but he occasionally switches to atashi when he's caught off guard. A flashback reveals that he used to consistently use atashi when he was younger, hinting at his Ambiguous Gender Identity.

  • Lone: The effigy uses we/us pronouns both for itself and for Lone, reinforcing that it's part of her.
  • In Questionable Content, "Spookybot" uses "we" as their personal pronoun, foreshadowing that they actually have multiple bodies.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • The Spanish language has two sets of second-person pronouns and corresponding extra sets of verb conjugations. Usted (singular) and ustedes (plural) are considered formal, for use between people who don't know each other well or whose relationship is more professional than personal, while and vosotros are considered informal and are used between close friends and family members (a practice that has its own verb, tutearse). Additionally, vosotros is usually only used in Castilian Spanish, the official dialect of Spain; Latin Americans use ustedes for both formal and informal plurals. To further add to the confusion, usted and ustedes are both conjugated in the third person, i.e. if you're asking your father-in-law — who is frequently usted — how to make a plate at dinner, you ask him, "Does he want the chicken or the beef?"note  And if you're asking two of your closest friends the same question, it's "Do they want the chicken or the beef?note  even if you'd say it with note  separately. Using the vosotros formnote  in Latin America marks you as a Spaniard in much the way that saying "Oi, mates, d'you fancy the chicken or the beef?" would mark you as British or Australian in North America.
  • French has two second person pronouns; tu and vous. The latter is the plural pronoun, but can also be used to politely/formally address a single person who you aren't acquainted with too well. Most of the time, it's still used as if the speaker was addressing a group of people. Much like Spanish, French has a verb for "calling someone tu", tutoyer; because of the familiar connotations of French tu, tutoyer has by analogy gained the extended meaning of "be familiar with" or "be no stranger to" in the abstract sense.
  • Indonesian has the casual kamu and the formal but impersonal Anda and Saudara, the latter used by cops to civilians or in parliamentary meetings. The Jakarta dialect lo is also often seen in media, used among close friends or among young people, close or otherwise. None of these are considered polite, though; the polite way to address others is Bapak ("Sir"), Ibu ("Ma'am"), or Kakak ("older sibling", for youngish people), and the Javanese Mas ("older brother") or Mbak ("older sister") are also often used.
  • Italian use the informal tu (singular) for people with whom one is closely acquainted, whereas in formal situations or when addressing a superior, elder or stranger the formal lei ("she") is used instead. Lei is the third-person feminine pronoun, used as such because most Italian honorifics are feminine. While voi was originally used for formal situations (similar to the French vous) in Archaic Italian during Medieval times, since 500 it was slowly replaced by the lei form. Nowadays, lei is the well-known form used by most people, while voi is used exclusively by elders in some southern regions.
  • Archaic English had a distinction between "you", used in formal circumstances, and "thou", used to express intimacy and more rarely to address people perceived as not meriting respect. Deliberate use of one pronoun over the other was sometimes used for rhetorical effect: for instance, when Sir Walter Raleigh was being tried for treason in 1603, his prosecutor Sir Edward Coke (possibly apocryphally) tried to insult him by declaring that "I thou thee, thou traitor!". Also worthy of note is the use of "thou", rather than "you", when addressing God in prayer, to convey a tone both of reverence and of closeness between the worshipper and God.
  • Quakers (members of the Society of Friends) were known for exclusively using "thou" and "thee" even after the words had begun to fade out of use. This reflected their radically egalitarian views which abhorred most forms of social hierarchy.
  • Some dialects of English above the Mersey use the possessive plural pronoun "our" as a singular to refer to close family/friends.
  • Arabic generally does not have this (except for a Royal "We" and a corresponding "royal (plural) you" to address someone who uses the royal "we"), with one major exception: Egyptian Arabic, the single largest variety of colloquial Arabic. In Egyptian Arabic, there is a distinction between inta/inti for general use (for masculine and feminine addressees, respectively) and ḥaḍritak/ḥaḍritik for respectful use to elders and social superiors (again, for masculine and feminine addressees, respectively). The ḥaḍritak form roughly means "Your Grace" (rather like Spanish usted), and is connected to a whole system of honorifics in Egyptian Arabic (largely based on age and occupation) that is unique to the country (and Sudan, whose dialect is largely similar).
  • Dutch has both informal you (jij) and formal you (u). However, in the Netherlands, there's a strong cultural emphasis on not putting on airs, and the social upheaval of the 60's led to a far more relaxed attitude in general. In practice, this means that unless you're addressing someone in an official capacity or the particular person you're addressing is old or strict enough to have strong views on the subject, you will be able to get away with informal you more often than not. Belgian speakers of Dutch will be significantly more likely to use the formal you, and depending on the specific dialect and audience may include a third version of the pronoun — gij, an older form of jij, which sits somewhere in-between formal and informal but edges closer to informal. Interestingly, the verbs for using formal and informal you with someone are French loanwords — tutoyeren and vousvoyeren — rather than being taken from Dutch itself.