What are they?
Indefinite pronouns are those that are not specific, exact or definite. They are also used when the noun is unknown. In other words, they do not follow the same construction as most other pronouns, which replace the antecedent (the noun to which they refer). The pronouns themselves are the antecedents. Indefinite pronouns do not refer back to a particular person, subject or object. Most of these pronouns are either always singular or always plural, but there are a few that function both as singular and plural pronouns depending on the context of the sentence. The following comprises the list of indefinite pronouns:
Singular: another, anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, enough, everybody, everyone, everything, little, much, neither, nobody, no one, nothing, one, other, somebody, someone, something
Plural: both, few, many, others
Both singular and plural: all, any, more, most, none, some, such
When indefinite pronouns are singular, applicable verbs and personal pronouns that refer to the indefinite one must also stay singular and agree in both number and gender. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: Anyone can earn a living as a freelance writer. (“Anyone” is a singular indefinite pronoun, so the verb “earn” takes the singular form.)
Example 2: Each member of the women’s group has one vote to cast for the person she feels is likely to do the best job.
In Example 2, “each” is singular. The verb “has” takes the singular form and the personal pronoun “she” refers back to “each,” so it must stay singular as well. Because you know each member is part of a member’s group, the personal pronoun must apply to the female gender. Using the plural “they” instead is incorrect because the subject (each) would not stay in agreement with the personal pronoun that refers back to it.
Plural indefinite pronouns require a plural verb and plural personal pronouns that agree in both number and gender when the pronoun refers back to the indefinite pronoun. Look at the below examples:
Example 3: Many of the jurors held the same opinion. (“Many” is plural, and the verb stays in agreement by taking the singular form of “held.”)
Example 4: Few stray from their first instinct when the verdict is determined.
“Few” is plural, so the verb “stray” is in the plural form. Likewise, the personal pronoun of “their” refers back to “few,” so it is plural to maintain the agreement.
Both singular and plural
When an indefinite pronoun functions as either singular or plural, it is important to ensure the verb is in agreement. These pronouns that function as both are sometimes modified by a prepositional phrase. To determine whether one is used as a singular or plural pronoun, you must look at the context of the sentence or, in the case of a modifying prepositional phrase, to what the subject (the indefinite pronoun) refers to in the prepositional phrase that modifies it. The verb must stay in agreement with the indefinite pronoun and any personal pronouns, including agreeing in gender and number, that appear later in the sentence. Consider the following examples:
Example 5: All is forgotten.
In Example 5, “all” in this case is singular, so the singular verb “is” is the correct form of the verb. The definition of “all” when it is singular is “the whole quantity of something.” If you are unsure, examine the context of any surrounding sentences to determine whether the indefinite pronoun is used in singular or plural form.
Example 6: All of the earnings from investment income are taxed at the capital gains tax rate.
In Example 6, “all” is plural. You can determine this by looking at the prepositional phrase (of the earnings) that modifies it. “Earnings” is plural, so it requires the plural verb “are.”
Example 7: Some of the students feel that the professor grades too harshly.
In Example 7, “some” is plural, as is determined by looking at the modifying prepositional phrase (of the students). “Students” is plural, so the plural verb “feel” is used.
Functioning as other parts of speech
It is important to realize that some indefinite pronouns also function as other parts of speech, so you must recognize when the word is used as this type of pronoun. Consider the following examples:
Example 8: She has one son in college and another in high school. (“Another” is an indefinite pronoun.)
Example 9: She wants another cup of coffee. (“Another” is an adjective that modifies “cup of coffee.”)