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The English Indefinite Pronoun System

Traditional grammars defined pronouns as “small words that take the place of nouns and noun phrases.” In additional to the personal pronouns, whose antecedents are previously identified proper and common nouns, the English pronoun system also includes a subcategory known as indefinite pronouns. Indefinite pronouns function similarly to personal pronouns but refer to unspecified persons, places, things, and ideas. Indefinite pronouns are most commonly used in impersonal constructions, or sentences that make general statements without a specified grammatical agent.

Singular Indefinite -one Pronouns

The first group of indefinite pronouns in English are the singular indefinite -one pronouns. All the -one pronouns are singular in number. The singular indefinite English -one pronouns are:

  • anyone
  • everyone
  • no one
  • one
  • someone

The indefinite -one pronouns can perform six grammatical functions: subject, subject complement, direct object, indirect object, prepositional complement, and determinative. For example:

The singular indefinite -one pronouns are also referred to as impersonal pronouns.

Singular Indefinite -body Pronouns

The second group of indefinite pronouns in English are the singular indefinite -body pronouns. All the -body pronouns are also singular in number. The singular indefinite English -body pronouns are:

  • anybody
  • everybody
  • nobody
  • somebody

The indefinite -body pronouns can also perform six grammatical functions: subject, subject complement, direct object, indirect object, prepositional complement, and determinative. For example:

  • Somebody is in trouble. (subject)
  • The culprit could be anybody. (subject complement)
  • My dog has bitten nobody. (direct object)
  • The boss bought everybody small gifts. (indirect object)
  • He must have sold the couch to somebody. (prepositional complement)
  • Somebody’s car has been stolen. (determinative)

The singular indefinite -body pronouns are also referred to as impersonal pronouns.

Singular Indefinite -thing Pronouns

The third group of indefinite pronouns in English are the singular indefinite -thing pronouns. All the -thing pronouns are again singular in number. The singular indefinite English -thing pronouns are:

  • anything
  • everything
  • nothing
  • something

The indefinite -thing pronouns can only perform six grammatical functions: subject, subject complement, direct object, indirect object, object complement, and prepositional complement. For example:

  • Everything is beautiful. (subject)
  • The problem has to be something. (subject complement)
  • We will purchase nothing. (direct object)
  • You must give something some consideration. (indirect object)
  • You can elect me anything. (object complement)
  • I finished my essay early for nothing! (prepositional complement)

The -thing pronouns cannot typically function as determinatives because possession with the apostrophe s or s apostrophe (‘s or s’) clitic in English is generally limited to people and other animate beings.

Other Singular Indefinite Pronouns

The fourth group of indefinite pronouns in English are the other singular indefinite pronouns that are also singular in number:

  • another
  • each
  • either
  • enough
  • less
  • little
  • much
  • neither
  • other
  • plenty

The other singular indefinite pronouns can perform up to seven grammatical functions: subject, subject complement, direct object, indirect object, object complement, prepositional complement, and determinative. For example:

  • Little matters to him anymore. (subject)
  • Enough is enough. (subject complement)
  • The little boy ate another. (direct object)
  • The committee gave neither any real consideration. (indirect object)
  • You can appoint me either. (object complement)
  • To each his own. (prepositional complement)
  • One’s trash is another’s treasure. (determinative)

Note that only the indefinite pronouns with antecedents of people or other animate beings can function as determinatives.

Plural Indefinite Pronouns

The fifth group of indefinite pronouns in English are the plural indefinite pronouns that are plural in number:

  • both
  • few
  • fewer
  • many
  • others
  • several

The indefinite plural pronouns can only perform six grammatical functions: subject, subject complement, direct object, indirect object, object complement, and prepositional complement. For example:

  • Few willingly study grammar. (subject)
  • The assigned books are both. (subject complement)
  • The judges chose several. (direct object)
  • Your supervisor just gave many a good talking to. (indirect object)
  • You can elect me both. (object complement)
  • A good person always thinks of others first. (prepositional complement)

The indefinite plural pronoun others can also function as a determinative. For example:

  • The others’ voices overpowered my own. (determinative)

Singular or Plural Indefinite Pronouns

The sixth group of indefinite pronouns in English are the indefinite pronouns that can be either singular or plural in number depending on context:

  • all
  • any
  • more
  • most
  • none
  • some
  • such

The singular or plural indefinite pronouns can also only perform five grammatical functions: subject, subject complement, direct object, indirect object, and prepositional complement. For example:

  • All is lost. (subject)
  • The right solution is any. (subject complement)
  • That customer has requested more. (direct object)
  • The judges have decided to award none the prize. (indirect object)
  • Our new employee only received help from some. (prepositional complement)

Other Indefinite Pronouns

The seventh group of indefinite pronouns in English are the pronouns that can be either personal or indefinite depending on context:

  • you
  • they

The pronouns you and they may be either personal — with a specific antecedent — or indefinite — with an unspecified antecedent — depending on context.

The other indefinite pronouns more frequently perform the grammatical function of subject but can perform other functions as well. For example:

  • You should always wash your hands. (subject)
  • They say you should never talk about politics or religion (subject, subject)
  • You can never have enough socks. (subject)

When used as indefinite pronouns, you and they are also referred to as impersonal pronouns.

Pronouns Versus Determiners

Similar to the misunderstanding between personal pronouns and possessive determiners, the difference between indefinite pronouns and determiners also sometimes results in confusion. For example, compare the following two sentences:

  • Most humans eat some meat. (determiners [quantifiers])
  • Most eat some. (indefinite pronouns)

In the first sentence, most and some are determiners that provide additional information about the quantity of the nouns humans and meat. In the second sentence, most and some are indefinite pronouns that take the place of the noun phrases most humans and some meat from the first sentence.

References

Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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