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3. Indefinite Pronouns

One, Each, Somebody, and Many Others

Oodles of indefinite pronouns enable us to refer to any one, any two, several, or all in a group or class of persons or things or ideas. As shown in the list below, some of the pronouns have possessive forms. Unlike the personal pronouns, the indefinite pronouns form their possessives by adding “apostrophe ‑s.” Only one has a plural form (others).

Indefinite Pronouns Indefinite Pronouns Indefinite Pronouns
all everybody (‘s) none
another (‘s) everyone (‘s) nothing
any everything one (‘s)
anybody (‘s) few other (‘s)
anyone (‘s) many others (others’)
anything most several
both much some
each neither (‘s) somebody (‘s)
each one (‘s) no one (‘s) something
either (‘s) nobody (‘s) such

 

Any of these words can act as a subject, complement, or object. So distinctions in case exist only in the possessive, shown by the possessive ending.

Singular – Indefinite Pronouns

Everybody is entitled to their own opinion

In formal settings, all indefinite pronouns ending in ‑one or ‑body are singular. You should therefore use singular verbs. And, in formal settings, when referring back to them, you should use singular pronouns:

Formal

Wrong: Everybody is entitled to their own opinion.
(One day, even highly literate Americans will regard this usage as correct.)

Right: Everybody is entitled to his own opinion.
(But watch out for charges of sexism.)

Right: Everybody is entitled to her own opinion. (Ditto)

Right: Everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion.
(A tongue-twister, used by Katie Couric in her debut on the CBS Evening News, Sept. 5, 2006.)

Informal

Right: Everybody is entitled to their own opinion.
(This usage will one day prevail.)

We could go on at some length debating the use of the plural pronouns they-their-them to refer to the distinctly singular everybody or other indefinite pronouns. Those who wish to pursue the issue should read Mr. Follett’s Modern American Usage 31-33 (rev. ed. 1998) and Mr. Garner’s Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style 300-303 (2000).

Mr. Follett wishes to retain the traditional approach of using the figurative (and singular) he-him-his to refer to indefinite pronouns (and any other singular generic antecedent).

But it’s a debate Mr. Follett is not likely to win, for he identifies some formidable opposition:

The Random House Handbook [recommends] that a student writing an essay substitute she for the figurative he throughout; the reader “will become quickly adjusted to the change,” the authors assert.

The Harbrace College Handbook adds that the writer avoiding the figurative he can change a sentence from the active to the passive voice; but the authors immediately warn that statements in the passive tend to be wordy and weak.

Mr. Follett then tries out the passive-voice solution on one of his test sentences showing the problems of referring back to indefinite pronouns:

Anyone driving tonight had better keep his eyes on the road.

The passive voice yields:

Eyes had better be kept on the road by anyone driving tonight.

Yuck.

Making the antecedent plural and abandoning the singular indefinite pronoun anyone solves the problem:

Any people driving tonight had better keep their eyes on the road.

In informal settings, breaking the old rule also works:

Anyone driving tonight had better keep their eyes on the road.

 

Previous: 2. Intensive Pronouns – The -self Words
Next: “They-Their-Them”

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