Indefinite Pronouns  

What is an indefinite pronoun?

An indefinite pronoun is used in place of a noun without specifying a particular person or thing that is being represented. There are quite a few indefinite pronouns, which you can see listed in the table below. Look them over, and then read on to learn about their usage.

Table of Indefinite Pronouns

People vs. Things
Singular
Plural
Singular or Plural
Either People or Things
another
one (quantifier)
each
either
other
both
few
fewer
many
others
several
all
any
more
most
neither
none
plenty
some
People only
anybody/anyone
everybody/everyone
one ("impersonal" pronoun)
nobody/no one/no-one
somebody/someone
whoever/whosoever
whomever/whomsoever
you (see usage note)
they (see usage note)
Things only
anything
enough
everything
less
little
much
nothing
something
such
this
whatever
whichever
such

Singular vs. Plural

Many pronouns that refer to more than one—e.g., everything, everyone, much, etc.—are considered singular. This is because, grammatically, they function as a single unit (like the collective nouns team, group, collection, etc., which are made up of multiple people or things). As a result, they must take a singular verb and have agreement with the rest of the text. For example:
Likewise, the plural pronouns must have plural agreement with their verbs and other parts of the text:
Some pronouns can function either as singular or plural, depending on context and usage; thus, their verb agreement changes accordingly. For example:

People vs. Things

Both people and things can be identified in a sentence by an indefinite pronoun. Many pronouns are only used to refer to people or to things; as we’ll see later on, though, there are also many which can be used for either.

People

Take the following sentence, for example:
Here, anyone is standing in for any person, but it doesn’t specify who that person is or might be—it could be anyone!
(If we wanted to use a pronoun that specified a person, we would use a personal pronoun, as in “Would you like a drink?”)
However, we wouldn’t use anyone to refer to a thing. Any indefinite pronoun with “one” or “body” in it is reserved for identifying people. Incidentally, “one” and “body,” when used as part of an indefinite pronoun, can be used interchangeably. Although some people feel that using “body” sounds a bit less formal, it is up to the discretion of the writer.
Let’s look at examples for each indefinite pronoun that relates to people:
(Note that whosoever and whomsoever, while perfectly acceptable, have come to sound a bit antiquated compared to whoever and whomever.)
*Usage note: Generic you and they
The second-person pronouns (you, your, yours, yourself, yourselves) are also often used as indefinite pronouns to indicate an unspecified person. This is sometimes referred to as generic you, impersonal you, or indefinite you.
You is far less formal than its counterpart, the indefinite pronoun one, but it is sometimes preferred because it does not sound as snobbish or because such formality is unnecessary. Because one is used to refer to people, but without specifying who it represents, it is sometimes called an impersonal pronoun.
If one is writing something very formal or professional, then one might be better off using the indefinite pronoun one. If you’re writing something a bit less formal, then you are probably just fine using the generic pronoun you.
(Also note that one has a second function as an indefinite pronoun that is used as a quantifier, as in “I think I'll get the red one" or “Most of the people in our group is here, but one is running late.”)
Similarly, the third-person plural pronoun they can be used as an indefinite pronoun to refer to people in general. It is usually used in the form “They say . . .,” as in “They say that drinking too often is bad for your health.” However, this is considered very informal, and would be frowned upon in formal, professional, or academic writing.

Things

We can also use indefinite pronouns to represent things in the same manner:
Any indefinite pronoun that is formed with “-thing” is, understandably, only used to refer to things. (One can also refer to things, but only as a quantifier, which functions differently in a sentence than the impersonal pronoun one.)
Let’s look at examples of the indefinite pronouns that only apply to things:

People and Things

Quite a few indefinite pronouns can be used to refer to either people or things. In such cases, we rely on context or other elements of the sentence to know which:
In the above sentence, we don’t know whether one and other refer to people or to things; we have to rely on information before or after the sentence to know which. Now let’s look at another example:
Because it is used in conjunction with the personal pronoun his, we can infer that the indefinite pronoun each is referring to a person. Likewise:
You don’t “get” (as in “acquire”) people, so we can safely assume that both is referring to things in this case.
Let’s look at examples of the indefinite pronouns that can refer to both things and people. Try to see if you can figure out which each is referring to by the information in the sentence, or whether you would need more information to know for sure.

Indefinite Adjectives vs. Indefinite Pronouns

Some indefinite pronouns can also function as indefinite adjectives if they come immediately before a noun that they serve to modify. For example:
If you’re trying to determine if a word is an indefinite pronoun, just check whether or not it is on its own in the sentence; if it is paired with a noun, then it is an indefinite adjective.
Quiz

1. Which of the following indefinite pronouns can only be used to refer to things?





2. Identify the indefinite pronoun used in the following sentence:
“People are saying all sorts of things, but little is worth listening to.”





3. What is the difference between an indefinite pronoun and an indefinite adjective?





4. How do you tell if an indefinite pronoun represents a person or a thing, if it is capable of both?







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