Say Anything: Understanding Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns made easy! Find tips, rules and examples to say something, anything and everything correctly.

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By Chiara Pegoraro · June 13, 2024 · 9 minute read

Though indefinite pronouns might be unfamiliar to many people, it seems that lately, everybody is talking about pronouns. Questions like “What are your pronouns?” are perfectly legitimate and the word ‘pronoun’ is no longer used in grammar analysis only, but also as a way to express one’s identity.

The thing is that pronouns aren’t just those words we use to refer to specific people, like he, she, and they, but are a wide grammar category that includes different subcategories. In this article we’ll look at one of those subcategories that we use in everyday speech, the indefinite pronoun.

What is an indefinite pronoun?

Basically, a pronoun is a word that stands for another word, or in some cases, a whole phrase.

If someone asks you a very long question like, “Hey, did you know that yesterday I met the girl that works in the coffee shop down the street and she told me that she is quitting her job?” you’d probably be happy to answer, “No, I didn’t know that.” You wouldn’t repeat that long piece of gossip by saying, “No, I didn’t know that the girl in the coffee shop down the street is quitting her job.” The word that is a type of pronoun that refers to something specific.

An indefinite pronoun, on the other hand, refers to something that is not known or unspecific. Look at the indefinite pronouns in the following examples, for instance:

  • Someone forgot their jacket in the classroom.
  • No one has heard from the professor.
  • Each student has received a course book.

You see? None of these refer to someone specific. We don’t know who might have left their jacket in the classroom, we have no information on the people that didn’t hear from the professor, and all of the students received a book.

An important rule is that some indefinite pronouns will be followed by a verb in the singular, some other pronouns are followed by a plural verb, and a few can go with either depending on the context. Let’s start our classification of indefinite pronouns from here.

Singular indefinite pronouns

What does it matter if the pronoun is singular or plural? Does it mean that you have to add -s at the end of the word like you do for plural nouns (one tree, two trees)? Not at all. With indefinite pronouns the word doesn’t change. Instead, you change the verb following a singular pronoun by adding -s when using simple present tense.

The table below shows some of the most common examples of singular pronouns. Note how -s is added to the verb after nobody, and how either and neither are followed by the verbs is and was (not are and were).

Singular indefinite pronouns

Pronoun Example
Someone, somebody Someone ate my sandwich!
Anyone, anybody Is anybody here?
No one, nobody Nobody works on Sundays here.
Everyone, everybody Everybody should just relax and have fun.
Something I think I heard something.
Anything You can take anything you like.
Nothing There is nothing for me to do here.
Everything This menu looks delicious – I want to try everything.
Each The teacher greets each student in the morning.
Either Either is fine for me.
Neither Neither of them was available.
One One should always be ready.

You see? When these pronouns are used as a subject, they always have a singular verb (is, was, works).

On the other hand, all of these can also be the object of the verb, as you can see in the examples. Look at the position of someone in these sentences:

  • Someone wants to work here on Sunday. (‘Someone’ is the subject of the sentence.)
  • They asked someone to be here on Sunday. (‘Someone’ is the object of the verb ‘asked.’)

Also, you might have noticed that the first four pronouns in the table each have two forms. Which one should you pick? We explain the difference below.

What’s the difference between someone and somebody?

So someone, anyone, everyone and no one all have a synonym ending in -body, so when should we use one or the other? There is no difference in meaning between someone and somebody or between anyone and anybody, everyone and everybody, no one and nobody. The only difference might be that the forms ending in -one might be perceived as slightly more formal and are more common in written English.

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Plural indefinite pronouns

Some indefinite pronouns require a plural verb. Let’s see which ones in the following table.

Plural indefinite pronouns

Pronoun Example
Both I don’t know if I will get a blueberry or a chocolate chip muffin. Both are very good.
Few There weren’t many students yesterday and only a few attended the lecture.
Many I don’t like my colleagues – many of them arrive late at meetings.
Others Some students prefer to work alone, while others enjoy group projects.
Several Several of the applicants were qualified for this position.

Don’t get scared by the long lists. It can seem complicated but if you look at it, it’s quite simple. Somebody, something, either and most of the words in the first list can actually refer to one person or one thing. The words in this second list, however, always have a plural verb because they always refer to at least two people or things. So now that you think about it, it becomes all so much easier.

Now that these first two categories are clearer, let’s dive into the third group of indefinite pronouns.

Are these singular or plural?

So, singular or plural? It depends on the context. Let’s look at a few examples to make it more clear.

Indefinite pronouns that can be singular or plural

Pronoun Example
All Singular: All of the cake is gone.
Plural: All of the students are here.
Any Singular: Is any of the cake left?
Plural: Are any of the cookies left?
More Singular: More is needed.
Plural: More are coming.
Most Singular: Most of the work is done.
Plural: Most of the people are friendly.
None Singular: None of the cake is left.
Plural: None of the guests have arrived.
Some Singular: Some of the water has spilled.
Plural: Some of the books are missing.

Indefinite pronouns in a negative sentence

When using indefinite pronouns, you should always keep in mind a good rule of thumb. Negative sentences (sentences containing not, don’t, didn’t, can’t, and so on) should always go with a pronoun starting with any- and not a pronoun starting with some- or no-. Look at these sentences:

  • Correct: I don’t need anybody to help me.
  • Incorrect: I don’t need somebody to help me.
  • Correct: I’m not seeing anything weird here.
  • Incorrect: I’m not seeing something weird here.

Pronouns starting with no- should be avoided in negative sentences to prevent double negatives, which can make the sentence very confusing:

  • Correct: I can’t find anyone who knows the answer.
  • Incorrect: I can’t find no one who knows the answer.

More context for indefinite pronouns

As we have seen in the previous paragraph, the context is very important to determine which pronoun to use. When choosing a pronoun, in fact, you not only have to consider the meaning of the word if it refers to people or objects, for instance, but also the type of sentence you are building. Look how different pronouns carry the same meaning in sentences with different functions:

  • Positive: Somebody is at the door.
  • Negative: I didn’t see anybody at the door.
  • Question: Is there anybody at the door?

In each sentence, the indefinite pronoun means ‘a person.’ But because the first example is a positive sentence, we use the pronoun somebody, while the negative sentence and question must use the pronoun anybody.

Wrapping up

We have seen indefinite pronouns in action and their crucial role in communication. From singular indefinite pronouns like someone and anything to plural indefinite pronouns like few and both, all of these words are essential in day-to-day conversation in English.

Remember that a subject indefinite pronoun will match the verb, so if it refers to something that might be singular it will have a singular verb (Someone has to remember that”). If the pronoun is plural it will match with a plural verb (“They both remember that”) while for some indefinite pronouns it depends on the context (All of the school is gone” or All of the students are gone”).

We have also seen how indefinite pronouns can vary depending on the context, depending on whether a sentence is positive, negative or a question.

Now that you have a solid grasp of indefinite pronouns, remember these rules and tips when incorporating them into your conversation and writing. Practice makes perfect, and now you have a solid base to keep on learning.

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