An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun that refers to non-specific beings, objects, or places.
Indefinite pronouns can represent either count nouns or noncount nouns and include a number of sub-categories: universal (such as everyone, everything), assertive existential (such as somebody, something), elective existential (such as anyone, anything), and negative (such as nobody, nothing).
Assertive existential pronouns differ from elective existential pronouns in that they either themselves assert (that is, presuppose) or are used in contexts that assert that the group to which the pronoun refers has at least one member (or a non-zero quantity in the case of noncount nouns), whereas the elective existential pronouns do not assert such membership and are used in contexts where membership is uncertain, and may be determined, or elected, at a later point in the discourse. Electives are also used when a question of existence is being explicitly denied, which gives rise to their frequent use in negative clauses. In many contexts, assertive and elective existentials are largely in partial complementary distribution or free variation, but there are contexts where they contrast and the difference in their meanings can be demonstrated clearly:
- Bill’s lawyer failed to do anything that could have helped him.
- Bill’s lawyer failed to do something that could have helped him.
The latter implies that there was a specific thing that the lawyer failed to do which could have helped Bill. On the other hand, the former makes no presupposition on if there was anything the lawyer could have done differently, only that he ultimately did not help Bill.
Indefinite pronouns are associated with indefinite determiners (sometimes called indefinite adjectives) of a similar (or identical) form (such as every, any, all, some). A pronoun can be thought of as replacing a noun phrase, while a determiner introduces a noun phrase and precedes any adjectives that modify the noun. Thus all is an indefinite determiner in "all good boys deserve favour" but a pronoun in "all are happy".
List of English indefinite pronouns
Note that many of these words can function as other parts of speech too, depending on context. For example, in many disagree with his views the word "many" functions as an indefinite pronoun, while in many people disagree with his views it functions as a quantifier (a type of determiner) that qualifies the noun "people". Example sentences in which the word functions as an indefinite pronoun are given.
Most indefinite pronouns are either singular or plural. However, some of them can be singular in one context and plural in another. The most common indefinite pronouns are listed below, with examples, as singular, plural or singular/plural.
Notice that a singular pronoun takes a singular verb. Also, any personal pronoun should also agree (in number and gender):
- Each of the players has a doctor.
- I met two girls. One has given me her phone number.
Similarly, plural pronouns need plural agreement:
- Many have expressed their views.
Table of indefinite pronouns
|Number||Type||Negative||Universal||Assertive existential||Elective/Dubitative |
|Singular||Person||no one (also no-one), nobody – No one/Nobody thinks that you are mean.||everyone, everybody – Everyone/Everybody had a cup of coffee.||someone, somebody – Someone/Somebody should fix that.||anyone, anybody – Anyone/Anybody can see this.||one – One might see it that way. See also generic you.|
|Thing||nothing – Nothing is true.||everything – Everything is permitted.||something – Something makes me want to dance.||anything – Anything can happen if you just believe.||this – This can't be good.|
|Dual||neither – In the end, neither was selected.||both – Both are guilty.||either – Either will do.|
|Singular or plural||none – None of those people is related to me.||all – All is lost.||some – Some of the biscuits have been eaten.||any – Any will do.||
- Elective existential pronouns are often used with negatives (I can't see anyone), while dubitative existential pronouns are used in questions when there is doubt as to the existence of the pronoun's assumed referent (Is anybody here a doctor?).
- Some traditional style guides state that "none" should always be treated as singular, but the plural sense is well established and widely accepted. See, for example, a blog entry by Michael Quinion or none in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary.
List of quantifier pronouns
English has the following quantifier pronouns:
- Uncountable (thus, with a singular verb form)
- enough – Enough is enough.
- little – Little is known about this period of history.
- less – Less is known about this period of history.
- much – Much was discussed at the meeting.
- more – More is better. (Also countable plural; see there.)
- most – Most was rotten. (Usually specified, such as in most of the food.) (Also countable plural; see there.)
- plenty – Thanks, that's plenty.
- Countable, singular
- one – One has got through. (Often modified or specified, such as in a single one, one of them etc.)
- Countable, plural
- several – Several were chosen.
- few – Few were chosen.
- fewer – Fewer are going to church these days.
- many – Many were chosen.
- more – More were ignored. (Often specified, such as in more of us.) (Also uncountable, see there.)
- most – Most would agree. (Also uncountable, see there.)
Some people say that "none" should always take a singular verb, even when talking about countable nouns (e.g. five friends). They argue that "none" means "no one", and "one" is obviously singular. They say that "I invited five friends but none has come" is correct and "I invited five friends but none have come" is incorrect. Actual usage evidence does not support this view. "None" has been used for hundreds of years with both a singular and a plural verb, according to the context and the emphasis required.
The most commonly encountered possessive forms of the above pronouns are:
- one's, as in "One should mind one's own business".
- those derived from the singular indefinite pronouns ending in -one or -body: nobody's, someone's, etc. (Those ending -thing can also form possessives, such as nothing's, but these are less common.)
- whoever's, as in "We used whoever's phone that is."
- those derived from other and its variants: the other's, another's, and the plural others': "We should not take others' possessions."
- either's, neither's
Note that most of these forms are identical to a form representing the pronoun plus -'s as a contraction of is or has. Hence someone's may also mean someone is or someone has, as well as serving as a possessive.
Compound indefinite pronouns
Two indefinite pronouns can sometimes be used in combination together.
- Examples: We should respect each other. People should love one another.
And they can also be made possessive by adding an apostrophe and s.
- Examples: We should respect each other's beliefs. We were checking each other's work.
|Look up indefinite pronoun in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|