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There Is Something Strange about Indefinite Pronouns

There Is Something Strange about Indefinite Pronouns
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Today on Everyday Grammar, our subject is indefinite pronouns. The pronouns we will consider today end with words such as “thing,” “body,” and “one.”

Think about words such as nothing, something, everyone, and anybody. They are sometimes called expanded indefinite pronouns. Such pronouns are unusual and can be very interesting, as we will see.


Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. Indefinite pronouns refer to people or things that are unknown or unclear.

First, let’s talk about how we arrive at expanded indefinite pronouns. In English, a few short and fairly common words have the ability to expand or grow. Take, for example, words such as every, any, no, and some. We can expand them by adding another word, such as body, thing, and one, to the ending.

expanded indefinite pronouns
expanded indefinite pronouns

Unusual things

Unlike most nouns, expanded indefinite pronouns can be modified by a single adjective. What is unusual about that, you ask? The adjective can, in some cases, come after the pronoun.

Consider this example:

I think that something strange is happening here.

In this sentence, the word something is the subject of a clause. The adjective strange comes after it.

In general, sentences have adjectives that come before nouns or after a linking verb, as in:

He is a strange man.

That man seems strange.

Another unusual thing about these expanded indefinite pronouns is that when they show possession, they need an apostrophe followed by the letter “s.” Yet other pronouns that show possession, such as mine or his, do not have an apostrophe + “s.”

Consider these examples:

Somebody’s phone is on the chair.

Everyone’s concerns were ignored!

When expanded indefinite pronouns are the subject of the sentence, English speakers treat them as singular in terms of the verb - even if the pronouns refer to many people.

For example, an English speaker might invite a group of people to dinner by saying:

Everybody is invited to dinner.

Here, everybody clearly means many people. But because it is the sentence subject, the verb is singular.

After our fictional dinner invitation, a person might say:

Everyone plans to be there!

Very unusual

But here is where things get a little strange. When the expanded indefinite pronoun is not the subject of the sentence, English speakers often use the pronoun they. This makes sense since everybody or everyone generally means several people. Consider this:

After everyone arrived for dinner, they played a football game.

But, because there are questions about the meaning of these indefinite pronouns, English speakers also use they when talking about one person. Consider this example:

Someone sent me a text message yesterday, but they didn’t say their name. I didn’t write back to them.

The reason the English speaker used they is because the pronoun someone is not clear. It gives no information about the person’s sex. It could be a man or a woman. Since gender is unclear, English speakers use the term they as a kind of gender-neutral pronoun.

Closing thoughts

When you read books written in English or watch American television shows, pay attention to how native speakers use the group of indefinite pronouns that we talked about today.

Listen for subject-verb agreement. Ask yourself about what the indefinite pronoun is doing in the sentence. Consider why the speaker used an indefinite pronoun instead of another pronoun. These questions may be difficult. But remember this: With hard work, anything is possible.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

And I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

* They is the subject form. Their and them are the possessive and objective forms, respectively.


Words in This Story

indefinite – adj. not clear in meaning or detail

refer to – phrasal verb to have a direct connection or relationship to (something)

modify – v. grammar : to limit or describe the meaning of (a word or group of words)

clause – n. grammar : a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb

apostrophe – n. the mark ʼ used to show the possessive form of a noun (as in “Lee's book” or “the tree's leaves”)

fictional – adj. meaning or involving a story or literature created from one’s imagination

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