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 or Plural
Either people or things
one ("impersonal" pronoun)
you (see usage note)
they (see usage note)
Singular vs. plural
Many pronouns that refer to more than one person or thing—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 to have agreement with the rest of the text. For example:
- “Everyone is invited.”
- “I hope everything is all right.”
Likewise, the plural pronouns must have plural agreement with their verbs and other parts of the text:
- “Many are in agreement with their peers.”
Some pronouns can function either as singular or plural, depending on context and usage; thus, their verb agreement changes accordingly. For example:
- “All are welcome should they wish to attend.” (plural)
- “All is right with the world.” (singular)
None – singular or plural?
There is debate as to whether none can truly denote plurality. Some sources argue that none can only represent the singular not one, whereas others claim it can also represent the plural not any. Since none has a long history of being used as both a singular and plural demonstrative pronoun, there is little historical or grammatical basis to support the claim that it can only be treated as singular. Instead, we rely on context and usage:
- “None of this makes sense.” (None is singular because this is singular.)
- “None of the people here seem to like the cake I made.” (None is plural because the people is plural.)
People vs. things
Both people and things can be identified in a sentence by an indefinite pronoun. Certain pronouns are only used to refer to people or to things; as we’ll see later on, though, there are many that can be used for either.
Take the following sentence, for example:
- “Would anyone like a drink?”
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:
- “I don’t think anyone/anybody wants to dance.”
- “Everyone/everybody is leaving early.”
- “One* would hope that this sort of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated.”
- “You* would think that the government would have thought of that already.”
- “I can’t believe no one/no-one/nobody came to my play!”
- “She’s hoping someone/somebody will help her with her work.”
- “Whoever/whosoever would like to join us is more than welcome.”
- “Hire whomever/whomsoever you think would be the most appropriate for the job.”
- “They* say you should always wear a helmet on a bicycle.”
Note that whosoever and whomsoever, while perfectly acceptable, have come to sound a bit antiquated compared to whoever and whomever. Likewise, whomever and whomsoever are increasingly being replaced by whoever/whosoever, regardless of their grammatical case.
*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.
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 are 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.
We can also use indefinite pronouns to represent things in the same manner:
- “Is there something you’d like to say?”
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:
- “I don’t care what I eat, so just order me anything.”
- “I think she has had enough.”
- “He wanted to buy everything in the shop.”
- “The less you know, the better.”
- “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I know very little.”
- “There was nothing she felt like doing.”
- “There is still much to be done.”
- “I’m sure that I’m forgetting something.”
- “She finds tourists very irritating, and she hates being treated as such when she travels.”
- “He had this to say in his defense.”
- “I’ll just have whatever you’re having.”
- “It’s your money, so buy whichever you like best.”
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:
- “One was short and stout; the other was long and skinny.”
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:
- “Each to his own—that’s what I always say!”
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:
- “Get both if you like them so much.”
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 pronoun is referring to by the information in the sentence, or whether you would need more information to know for sure.
- “Come on, let’s get another!”
- “Each will get a turn to speak.”
- “I think either will do for now.”
- “Few came to the service, in the end.”
- “There are fewer than I remember.”
- “Many are voicing their concerns.”
- “One likes to play the banjo, while the other prefers the piano.”
- “There are a few others that still need to be collected.”
- “Most have left, but several are still here.”
- “There were plenty there.”
- “All are accounted for.”
- “I don’t think there are any left.”
- “There’s a bit more to be done still.”
- “Neither seem willing to negotiate.”
- “There are none left.”
- “Save some for me!”
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:
- “There is more to be done.” (indefinite pronoun)
- “There is more work to be done.” (indefinite adjective)
- “There is another who can fill in, if necessary.” (indefinite pronoun)
- “There is another student who can fill in, if necessary.” (indefinite adjective)
If you’re trying to determine if a word is an indefinite pronoun, just check whether or not it stands on its own in the sentence; if it is paired with a noun, then it is an indefinite adjective.
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