Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns refer to people or things without saying exactly who or what they are. In this lesson, we will learn more about these pronouns.

intermediate
"Indefinite Pronouns" in English Grammar

What Are Indefinite Pronouns?

Indefinite pronouns refer to people or things without saying exactly who or what they are.
These pronouns do not have a specific gender and can be singular, plural, or both.

Not all English pronouns refer to a person or a thing we know; they can also refer to people all around the world, make a sentence negative or refer to ambiguous things; that is the job of indefinite pronouns.
So based on these function, we categorized them in various groups:

Types of Indefinite Pronouns

There are different types of indefinite pronouns and each type can be used in a slightly different way.

Assertive Indefinite Pronouns

Assertive (also called assertive existential) indefinite pronouns include one item in the list with a special feature that we do not know or mention. Here is the list of assertive indefinite pronouns:

Person Thing both Singular/plural/both
Some plural
Someone singular
Somebody singular
Something singular

Assertive Indefinite Pronouns Referring to People

As you might know, we use 'someone' and 'somebody' to refer to a person whose identity is either unknown or unidentified to us.
'Somone' is a bit more formal than 'somebody'. Otherwise, they are used interchangeably.

Somebody is here to see you.

We need someone strong to help us.

Assertive Indefinite Pronouns Referring to Things

'Something' is an assertive indefinite pronoun referring to things that are used to mean a particular thing when we do not know their name or do not know exactly what they are.

There is something in my eye.

Non-assertive Indefinite Pronouns

Non-assertive (also called elective or elective/dubitative existential) indefinite pronouns include one item in the list, no matter what the features are. They refer to any person/thing when it is not important to say exactly who or what. Here is the list:

Person Thing Both Singular/plural/both
any both
anyone singular
anybody singular
anything singular

Non-assertive Indefinite Pronouns Referring to People

'Anyone' and 'anybody' refers to a person whose identity is not important.
'Anyone' is a bit more formal than 'anybody'. Otherwise, they are used interchangeably.

Anyone could win tonight.

She hasn't talked to anyone all day.

Non-assertive Indefinite Pronouns Referring to Things

'Anything' is used to refer to any thing, event, situation, etc., when it is not important to say exactly which

You can buy anything you want.

Universal Indefinite Pronouns

Universal indefinite pronouns include every item in the list, no matter what or who. Here is the list of these pronouns:

Peron Thing Both Singular/plural/both
every singular
everybody singular
everyone singular
everything singular
all both
each singular

Universal Distributive Pronouns

'All' and 'each' are both considered universal distributive pronouns. 'All' means the total number of people or things considered as a group. 'Each' means all group members are considered individually though we think of them more one by one.

When the contestants finished the race, each was given a trophy.

When the contestants finished the race, all were given a trophy.

Universal Indefinite Pronouns Referring to People

We use 'everyone' and 'everybody' when we want to refer to all of the people in a group. Everyone is a little more formal than everybody. Everyone is used more in writing than everybody.

Everyone enjoyed the concert.

Everybody loves him.

Universal Indefinite Pronouns Referring to Things

We use 'everything' to refer individually to all the members of a complete group of something.

You should tell her everything.

Negative Indefinite Pronouns

Negative indefinite pronouns include no item in the list. They refer to an absence of people, things or places. Here is the list:

Person Thing Both Singular/plural/both
nobody Singular
no one Singular
nothing Singular
none both

Negative Indefinite Pronouns Referring to People

'No one' and 'nobody' both refer to the absence of people. 'Nobody' is a little less formal than no one. We use no one more than nobody in writing.

No one likes being criticized.

Nobody knows for certain what happened to him.

Negative Indefinite Pronouns Referring to things

'Nothing' means no + thing. It refers to the absence of anything. Keep in mind to not use 'nothing' with another negative word such as 'not.'

There is nothing in this box.

Alternative Indefinite Pronouns

Alternative indefinite pronouns include an item or items in the list other than a preselected one. They refer to the second of two people or things, which is not the one we already have or the one we have already mentioned.

Person Thing Both Singular/plural/both
other singular
the other singular
others plural
another singular

'Others' is a plural alternative indefinite pronoun. It can be used with both people or things.

We all should help others.

We can use the other as a pronoun, especially to refer back to something which has been mentioned already in the sentence.

He kept shifting awkwardly from one foot to the other.

When we use the indefinite article 'an' before 'other,' we write it as one word. Another refers to the alternative or different thing or person.

Buy two shirts and get another completely free.

Tip!

Some indefinite pronouns are always followed by a singular verb even if they refer to a number of people/things.

Everybody knows that Toby and Angela are dating.

You know that 'everybody' means all people and it does not refer to the same person, yet we use a singular verb after it; that is why it is called a singular indefinite pronoun.

Does anybody want a drink?

'Anybody' refers to more than one person, yet we use a singular helping verb for it.

Referring Back to an Indefinite Pronoun

When we refer back to an indefinite pronoun, we normally use a plural pronoun:

Everybody watched the show. They really liked it.

In this example, 'they' refers back to 'everybody.'

Let's tell somebody that we're ready to go. They have been waiting for a long time.

Here in this sentence, 'they,' that is a plural pronoun, refers back to 'somebody.'

Making Possessives

Normally we cannot add 's' to pronouns to make them possessives. But we can add 's to an indefinite pronoun to make a possessive:

They were staying in somebody's house.

'S is added to 'somebody' to indicate possession.

Is this anybody's wallet?

'S is added to 'anybody' to show possession.

Using the Indefinite Pronoun 'Anybody' as the Subject

Warning

We are supposed to use each pronoun in a negative sentence depending on their grammatical role (being the subject or object of the sentence). It means that for example, you cannot use universal indefinite pronouns (like everybody) in a negative sentence (either as the subject or object). Take a look at this example:

Everybody is not happy.

This example is wrong because 'everybody' (a universal indefinite pronoun) is used in a negative sentence.

What Is a Negative Marker?

A negative marker is a word that can make a sentence negative. As you can see in the table above 'negative indefinite pronouns' are negative markers. It means that using them in a sentence can make the sentence negative (without using not). Take a look at this example:

Nobody was there.

Here, in this example, by using 'nobody' (a negative indefinite pronoun) this sentence bears a negative meaning.

You should know that, using another negative marker in this sentence is grammatically wrong:

Nobody was not there.

'Nobody' is a negative indefinite pronoun, so you must use 'was' instead of 'was not'.

Double Negation

In colloquial language sometimes negative indefinite pronouns as objects are used in already negative sentences to show emphasis. This is called a double negation:

I don't want to talk to no one.

'Don't' is used to show the emphasis.

How to Make Sentences Negative with an Indefinite Pronoun?

There are different ways to change a positive sentence to a negative sentence using an indefinite pronoun:

  • When indefinite pronoun is the subject of the sentence:

In this case the best way is to use a negative indefinite pronoun depending on what the pronoun is referring to (a thing or person). Take a look at these example:

Everybody is happy. ≠ Nobody is happy.

In this example, 'nobody' is the negative pronoun which can be used instead of 'everybody' to make the sentence negative.

Something has changed. ≠ Nothing has changed.

As you know 'Nothing' is the best negative alternative for 'something.' Remember you use an affirmative verb for negative pronoun 'nothing.'

  • When indefinite pronoun is the object of the sentence:

In this case you can either use a negative pronoun in a positive sentence or an elective pronoun in a negative sentence (both are correct and have the same meaning). Take a look at this example:

I invited everybody.

Here in this example, a universal indefinite pronoun is used in a sentence with affirmative verb, that bears an affirmative meaning.

I didn't invite anybody.

Here, a negative verbs is followed by an 'elective indefinite pronoun' which bears a negative meaning.

I invited nobody.

In this case, an affirmative verb is followed by a negative indefinite pronoun which again bears a negative meaning as the previous example.

Indefinite Pronouns in Negative Sentences

Using indefinite articles in negative sentences is a bit tricky. You are not allowed to use every pronoun in a negative sentence. The table below can help you understand these boundaries better:

Subject Object Negative Maker
Universal
Negative
Elective
Assertive
Alternative
Quantifier

Review

Indefinite pronouns refer to ambiguous things or people.

  1. Universal
  2. Negative
  3. Elective
  4. Assertive
  5. Alternative
  6. Quantifier

How They Are Divided into Different Groups

  • Based on:
  1. What they refer to
  2. Meaning
  3. Type
  4. Number
  5. Following verb

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