Let’s Get (Non)specific: Indefinite Pronouns and How To Use Them
What is an indefinite pronoun? This particular category is full of words that we use on an everyday basis, but understanding them is often more intuitive and takes some time to break down precisely. That, however, is exactly what we’re going to do, so that you can gain a better understanding of how these common words function.
A Defining Moment (or Not)
We’ll start simple, with the indefinite pronoun definition. The words that belong to this group are used to identify persons, places, things, or ideas, but without specifying precise examples. Rather than replacing or referring to some previous noun, these particular words generally stand on their own and represent a concept without a direct antecedent.
But First, the Options
Before we starting categorizing each indefinite pronoun, let’s list all the possible words that can function in this way, with an indefinite pronouns list. The following are the most common:
all, another, any, anybody, anyone, anything, both, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, no one, nobody, none, nothing, one, other, others, some, somebody, someone, something, such, this, whatever, whichever, whoever, whomever
There are also some words, called quantifiers that function in a similar way but involve quantity, either countable or more general. We’ll go over that later, but take a look at this second indefinite pronouns list just to familiarize yourself:
enough, little, less, plenty, more, most, much, several, many, more, most, few, fewer
Contemplating the Universal
Some indefinite pronouns are considered “universal” in that they indicate some group that the sentence claims is homogenous in some way. That sounds more complicated than it is, so let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
- Everybody needs to relax.
Everybody is the subject of this sentence and does not refer back to any particular preceding noun. Instead, it claims that an entire group needs to relax. It might be directed at a specific group (e.g., that one character in disaster movies who tries to calm everyone down by addressing them like this) or as a general statement on humankind; either way is grammatically correct.
- All is forgiven.
Here, all is the only noun in the sentence and the subject. It’s a catch-all term without parameters, encompassing everything imaginable in its forgiven.
The Results Are Negative
In contrast with the above possibilities, there is another group that is used to indicate a universal negative, when a lack of "something” is the subject itself.
- No one agrees with Joe.
In this sentence, no one is the focus, conveying the absence of any being that performs the verb (in this case, the absence of anyone who is in agreement with Joe).
- None of those options is good.
This one is a little more complex, because none is clearly related to options. However, “of those options” is part of a prepositional phrase. None (singular) is the real subject of the sentence—the noun with which the verb must agree with. In this case, the verb to be is expressed as is. Subject-verb agreement is crucial in all your writing, whether you’re using MLA format, APA format, or one of the many more styles used in professional and academic writing.
Sometimes, we use a word that indicates a portion of some unspecified group or indicates a member of that group without specifying which one in particular (or when specification is not possible).
- Somebody must know where the file is.
Somebody denotes the idea that a person must know where the file is, but carries with it the understanding that we (and the speaker) don’t know which person that might be.
When we use an indefinite pronoun to indicate something that could be quantified, we have the option of uncountable or countable nouns. As their names suggest, countable nouns imply that, in theory, we could count the persons or objects encompassed by the word in question.
Several chose to stay behind.
Few use VCRs these days.
In the above sentences, we understand that these quantifiers could be groups that could be counted. Contrast this with their "uncountable” counterparts:
Enough has happened already.
Little has been written about her life.
There’s no counting possible with the concepts of enough or little, but they still function the same way as indefinite identifiers.
Any and All…
Elective existential pronouns have the honor of the most complicated-sounding name, but they’re actually pretty easy to understand. These are used when we want to identify any member of some group and apply some idea or verb to all of them individually.
Anyone can see that this is a terrible idea.
Either will work just fine.
We use these words to indicate that it doesn’t matter which person, thing, etc., is substituted in, the result would still be the same. If you’re unsure if you’re using these grammar concepts correctly, our grammar check can help!
Pronoun or Adjective?
When we define indefinite pronoun, we include several words that can function as multiple parts of speech. Some of them can be either a pronoun or an adjective, depending on the context. Let’s take a look at an example to make it clear.
Some are happy.
Some people work very quickly.
In the first sentence, some defines an indefinite set of beings who are happy without telling us anything about what kind of beings they are. This is a pronoun usage.
In the second sentence, some is attached to people and modifies it to tell us what group we are pulling some of. Here, the word some functions as an adjective.
Ready to try it yourself? Take a look at the following two sentences. Which of the following sentences contains an indefinite pronoun?
- All was well.
- All children like to play.
Both sentences use the word all, but it is an indefinite pronoun only in the first one; it is an adjective modifying “children” in the second.
And the Rest
When we discuss the question “what is an indefinite pronoun?”, we have to talk about several words that don’t quite fit into any one category. In this group are words like whichever, this, and other. The key to identifying them is to understand that they do not refer to a clear antecedent. You can find more information on this page.
- We’ll do whatever works best.
Whatever identifies an abstract concept that encompasses all the possible options that might work.
Indefinite pronouns are a cornerstone of daily speech, but they can be a little confusing to understand. With the knowledge in this article, you can feel confident in your abilities to use these words skillfully!