Agreement with Indefinite Pronouns

In English grammar, agreement is the correspondence of a verb with its subject in person and number, and of a pronoun with its antecedent in person, number, and gender. Indefinite pronouns, in particular, can pose some challenges when it comes to making sure they agree with the verbs and possessive pronouns in your sentences. This tutorial will help you understand how to accurately use indefinite pronouns and ensure grammatical agreement.

What are Indefinite Pronouns?

Indefinite pronouns, as the name suggests, are pronouns that do not point to a specific thing or person. They are often used when the exact object or person being referred to is not important or known. Below are some examples:

  • Everybody
  • Someone
  • None
  • Everything
  • Many
  • Both
  • While these are just a few examples, there are many more indefinite pronouns in the English language.

    Agreement with Indefinite Pronouns

    When it comes to indefinite pronouns, the agreement can be a little tricky. Normally, verbs must agree with their subjects, and pronouns must agree with their antecedents, in number. That is, singular subjects need singular verbs, and plural subjects need plural verbs. However, many indefinite pronouns can be either singular or plural, depending on the context.

    The Rule of Singularity for Indefinite Pronouns

    A commonly overlooked rule in English grammar is that many indefinite pronouns, despite potentially referring to multiple individuals or items, are still singular and therefore require singular verbs and possessive pronouns. These include:

  • Everybody
  • Someone
  • Anyone
  • Each
  • Neither
  • Everyone
  • For instance:

    Everyone is wearing their hat.

    This sentence, while commonly used in informal English, is grammatically incorrect. The correct version would be:

    Everyone is wearing his or her hat.

    The Rule of Plurality for Indefinite Pronouns

    On the other hand, there are some indefinite pronouns that are always plural, so they must be used with plural verbs and possessive pronouns. These include pronouns like 'few', 'many', and 'several'. For example:

    Many have lost their homes in the storm.

    In this sentence, "many" is a plural indefinite pronoun, agrees with the plural verb "have" and the plural possessive pronoun "their".

    The Rule of Contextual Agreement for Indefinite Pronouns

    Finally, there is a set of indefinite pronouns that can be either singular or plural, the determination of which depends on the prepositional phrase following the pronoun. These include 'all', 'any', 'most', 'none', and 'some'. For example:

    None of the pie has been eaten.

    In this case, the pie (singular) determines the use of the singular verb "has".

    None of the pies have been eaten.

    Conversely, if the noun in the prepositional phrase is plural as in "pies", the verb also becomes plural ("have").


    As you can see, the key to understanding agreement with indefinite pronouns can be quite complex and is largely based on whether they are treated as singular or plural. Remember, while many indefinite pronouns seem plural because they are including or speaking about multiple items or people, they actually can be singular as well. Generally, the rules outlined above will guide you accurately, but be aware of regional variations that may alter these rules in casual conversation or in certain forms of English. As with most grammar rules, the key is exposure and practice.

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