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Indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific antecedent. Instead, they refer to people, places, things, or ideas in a general way.
- Nobody likes a sore loser.
- Do not worry about anything.
Common indefinite pronouns include the following:
|all||either, neither||one, oneself|
|any, anyone, anybody, anything||few||no one, none, nobody|
|both||everyone, everybody, everything||other, others|
|each||many, most||some, someone, somebody|
Most indefinite pronouns, such as nobody, someone, or anything, are treated as singular and, therefore, take singular verbs.
- Someone is playing a trick on you.
- Anything is possible.
The indefinite pronouns everyone, everybody, and everything are also considered singular. The presence of the word “every” does not make them plural.
- Everyone is going on the field trip.
- Everything was ready for the party.
Exceptions are both, many, few, all, some, and others, which are treated as plural.
- Many are called, but few are chosen.
Many indefinite pronouns can also be used as adjectives, modifying nouns.
- Few plants are tough enough to grow in an arctic environment.
- (Few modifies plants.) Each antique plate is now safe in the cupboard. (Each modifies antique plate.)
Gray Area: Sexist Language and Indefinite Pronouns
Indefinite pronouns are often used to make general observations or broadly inclusive statements. As mentioned previously, most indefinite pronouns are considered singular. In the past, it was often standard practice to use a singular male pronoun to follow indefinite pronouns. This “generic he” was supposed to refer to males and females generally.
- Everyone wants to do his best.
However, concerns over sexist language have created a desire for more gender-inclusive constructions.
- Everyone wants to do his or her best.
- Everyone wants to do their best.
Although the second sentence violates the general rule requiring agreement with antecedents, many writers and speakers prefer to use forms of they because these forms are not gender specific. This is a common practice, but it is still criticized by grammatical purists.
To avoid the problem, rewrite the sentence so that a “generic he” would not be necessary. Usually, the simplest solution is to replace the singular indefinite pronoun with a plural alternative (underlined in the following example).
- All people want to do their best.