Indefinite pronouns in English

(Use of indefinite pronouns in English grammar)

What are indefinite pronouns?

In English grammar, indefinite pronouns are substitute words for things that cannot be or simply are not wanted to be named exactly. So, they can be used instead of them or, more precisely, they can ‘substitute’ them.

Generally, indefinite pronouns refer to persons or things – which can also be in the plural. If this is the case, the words ‘some’ and ‘any’ often serve as a basis (for details, see the comparison ‘some & any’). In particular:

Indefinite pronouns referring to persons

If persons are referred to, indefinite English pronouns mostly end in ‘-body’ or ‘-one’. The person to be substituted can then be male or female. All in all, there are no differences in meaning between these two variants.

  • Typical pronouns that can replace a person are:
    • everybody, anybody, anyone, etc.
  • Note: In terms of grammar, they are in the singular even if they denote several people. This rule signifies that the verb must be conjugated in the third person singular:
    • Everybody likes chocolate.”
    • Not: “Everybody like chocolate.”
      • In this incorrect sentence, the ‘-s’ is missing, which is required in the third person singular (see rule for ‘he, she, it’).

Information: In some cases, this kind of indefinite pronouns may cause difficulties in representing the sex (gender) of the named persons. Sometimes, one may not want to specify it or needs to hide it. As a consequence, ‘anybody’ for example, can be a woman or a man. For a detailed explanation of how to avoid this problem, please have a look at how to use ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun.

Indefinite pronouns referring to things

In English, many indefinite pronouns that refer to things typically end in ‘-thing’.

  • Examples of these are:
    • something, anything, nothing, etc.
  • Note: Again, the verb is conjugated in the third person singular:
    • Something has happened.”
    • Not: “Something have happened.”

Indefinite pronouns with ‘-body, -one’ and ‘-thing’

The following table shows a comparison of the pronouns for an indefinite number of people with the endings ‘-body’ and ‘-one’ as well as ‘-thing’ for things:

  Persons (ending ‘-body’) Persons (ending ‘-one’) Things (ending ‘-thing’)
any- anybody anyone anything
some- somebody someone something
every- everybody everyone everything
no- nobody no one¹ nothing²

¹ Watch out for the spelling: The term ‘no one’ is written with two words; incorrect: noone.

² Be careful with the pronunciation: Here, the ‘o’ is not pronounced as in the negation word ‘no’ [oʊ] but as a light ‘a’ [ʌ].

‘anybody’ and ‘anything’ in questions and negative statements

In some cases, there is more than one possibility to express the same meaning. This choice can quickly lead to confusion among English learners.

Basically, there is no difference in meaning, and both forms can be used equally as the following examples demonstrate in particular:

  • nobody’ and ‘not anybody’ both mean ‘no person’:
    • “There is nobody in the house.”
    • “There isn’t anybody in the house.”
      • By negating ‘is’ with ‘not’ (isn’t), ‘anybody’ is sufficient in this example. It is not necessary to use ‘nobody’ anymore.
    • But: “Is anybody in the house?”
      • Be careful: In interrogative sentences, ‘anybody’ needs to be used while ‘not’ does not.
  • nothing’ and ‘not anything’ have more or less the same meaning too:
    • “I have nothing to say.”
    • “I don’t have anything to say.”
      • The combination of ‘not’ and ‘anything’ is enough to construct the negation. ‘Nothing’ together with ‘not’ would be redundant and a double negation.
    • But: “Do you have anything to say?”
      • Be careful: In question sentences, ‘anything’ is used without ‘not’ in the sense of ‘something’.

Further indefinite pronouns for persons and things

The list below shows the pronouns that can stand for both (people and things). Also, they are frequently utilised inside of-constructions. Examples:

  • Most of them went by car.”
  • “We are going to ask both of them.”
  • “The students were happy. All of them passed the exam.”
    • Especially the word ‘all’ can be used in many ways.

Pronouns with an indefinite number

English indefinite pronoun

Pronouns with a definite number

There are two ways to express a definite (specific) number:

  • On the one hand, these can be alternatives. They may be realised with ‘either’ and ‘neither’:
    • Neither of us wanted to stay longer.”
      • For details, have a look at the direct comparison of ‘either’ and ‘neither’.
  • On the other hand, a selection of two can be represented by ‘both’:
    • “The parents were phoned. Both were angry.”

Further explanations relating to the ‘Indefinite pronouns’

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