What Are Indefinite Pronouns?

by | Nov 10, 2016 | GrammarSpot, Writing Tips | 0 comments

As their name suggests, indefinite pronouns can be an area of great uncertainty. Knowing how to work with them is important, however, because they also make up the largest group of pronouns. If you need help, don’t worry. Soon, everything will make sense.

The Basics of Indefinite Pronouns

An indefinite pronoun does not refer to specific persons or things.

Example:

  • With only two chairs for three people, someone will be left standing.

Here, someone is a noun referring to a person, but the identity of that person is not specified because we do not know which of three people will be the one standing. Thus, we refer to that person in nonspecific terms with the indefinite pronoun someone.

We also use an indefinite pronoun when making general statements or comments where a specific identity is immaterial:

  • Anybody can learn to use indefinite pronouns.
  • Everything will make sense.

Some basic indefinite pronouns are formed by combining certain quantifiers with -one, -body or -thing.

Quantifier Person Thing
any anyone

anybody

anything
some someone

somebody

something
every everyone

everybody

everything
no no one

nobody

nothing

Indefinite Pronouns Can Be Singular or Plural

The trickiest part is figuring out whether an indefinite pronoun is singular or plural. One tip to remember is that an indefinite pronoun ending in -one, -body or -thing is singular. Although it may not feel intuitive when dealing with a word such as everybody, which paints an image of multiple persons, sticking to this rule will help you keep your subjects and verbs in agreement.

When dealing with other common indefinite pronouns, you can refer to the table below:

Singular Plural Singular or Plural
another

each

either

enough

less

little

much

neither

one

other

both

few

fewer

many

others

several

all

any

more

most

some

such

For indefinite pronouns that can be either singular or plural, it helps to recognize that they are actually condensing longer constructions consisting of a quantifier, also known as an indefinite determiner, together with the pronoun’s antecedent.

For example, condensing the quantifier-antecedent construction any cupcakes can yield the following:

  • Any (cupcakes) are appreciated.

In the above example, the indefinite pronoun Any refers to a plural antecedent, cupcakes. Therefore, Any takes the plural verb are.

In other contexts, Any may have an uncountable singular antecedent and will take a singular verb:

  • Any (pie) is appreciated.

The most difficult case is none. Whether it is permissible to use none with plural verbs is actually quite a point of contention. The AP Stylebook favors a narrower usage, taking none to usually mean “no single one.” In such cases, none should be used with singular verbs:

  • None (of the cupcakes) was adequate.

Plural verbs should only be used in rare cases when none means either “no two” or “no amount”:

  • None (of the cupcakes) were the same flavor.
  • None (of the cupcake fees) were paid.

If you remain uneasy about treating none as plural, remember that you can almost always easily rewrite a sentence to convey essentially the same idea without using none:

  • All (of the cupcakes) were different in flavor.
  • All (of the cupcake fees) were unpaid.

Indefinite Pronouns Are A Definite Challenge

Indefinite pronouns are definitely not the easiest concept to grasp. Is there anything about them that remains unclear? Let us know by commenting below!

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