What is a reciprocal pronoun?
Reciprocal pronouns are used to refer to two or more people who are or were the subject of the same verb, with both or all parties mutually receiving or benefiting from that action in the same way. Reciprocal pronouns always function as the objects of verbs, referring back to the two or more people who are or were the subject(s).
The two reciprocal pronouns in English are each other and one another. In more traditional grammar, each other is used to identify only two people who are engaged in the mutual action, while one another describes more than two people. However, this supposed “rule” is less commonly applied in modern English, with each other and one another often being used interchangeably.
Reciprocal Pronouns vs. Reflexive Pronouns
Because the subjects of the sentence are also the objects of the same verb, it might seem logical to use one of the reflexive pronouns to represent them instead, as in:
- “We call ourselves every day.”
However, this is incorrect. Reflexive pronouns are used with “one-way” actions, so saying “we call ourselves” means each person is calling him- or herself individually—i.e., person A calls person A every day, person B calls person B every day, and so on.
Because we are describing a reciprocal action of the verb (meaning the action is mutually given and received between the parties involved), we must therefore use a reciprocal pronoun. The correct expression would be:
- “We call each other every day.”
- “We call one another every day.”
Now the sentence means that person A calls person B every day, and person B calls person A every day.
Using each other vs. one another
As we said already, we can use both each other and one another to refer to reciprocal action between two individuals or between multiple people in larger groups—it depends entirely on the context. If we have already been talking about Mary and Susan before we say “they love one another,” then it is obvious that the action is limited to those two. Likewise, if we had been talking about the various members of a large family and then say “they love each other,” then it is clear that the action is reciprocal among all of the individuals in the group.
Again, while traditional and proscriptive grammarians sometimes insist that each other can only be used between two people and one another can only be used between more than two people, this guideline is not based on historical or linguistic evidence; the two are interchangeable.
Each other’s and One another’s
When we wish to make reciprocal pronouns possessive, we always treat them as singular and add “-’s” to the end. Because both each other and one another refer to the individuals within a pair or group, they cannot take the plural possessive form (i.e., each others’ or one anothers’).
However, because we are talking about things belonging to two or more people, the nouns that follow their possessive form are usually pluralized. For example:
- “My neighbor and I spent a lot of time at each other’s houses when we were kids.”
- “The students were sent off in pairs to correct one another’s assignments.”
Just remember that uncountable nouns are always singular, as in:
- “Everyone at the rally was bolstered by each other’s energy.”