The Indefinite English Pronouns for ESL Students
Pronouns are traditionally defined as "small words that can take the place of nouns, noun phrases, and noun clauses." Unlike personal pronouns like I, me, myself, and mine whose antecedents are previously identified nouns within the context of the utterance, indefinite pronouns are pronouns whose antecedents are unspecified persons, places, things, and ideas. An antecedent is the noun, noun phrase, or noun clause that a pronoun replaces. Indefinite pronouns with antecedents that refer to a person or people are also referred to as impersonal pronouns.
Indefinite pronouns often appear in impersonal sentence constructions, or sentences that make general statements without a specified grammatical agent. An agent is the person or people who perform the action of the verb, i.e., the subject in an active clause or the prepositional complement of a prepositional phrase functioning as an adverbial in a passive clause. The following sections list the indefinite pronouns in English by type, explain the grammatical functions of indefinite English pronouns, and provide examples to illustrate use.
List of Indefinite Pronouns
The following seven sections list the indefinite pronouns in English by related type and number.
Singular Indefinite -one Pronouns
- no one
Singular Indefinite -body Pronouns
Singular Indefinite -thing Pronouns
Other Singular Indefinite Pronouns
The four groups of singular indefinite pronouns are all singular in number, meaning the antecedents refer to only one person, place, thing, or idea.
Plural Indefinite Pronouns
The plural indefinite pronouns are plural in number, meaning the antecedents refer to two or more people, places, things, or ideas.
Singular or Plural Indefinite Pronouns
The singular or plural indefinite pronouns are either singular or plural in number depending on the context. For example, compare All is well (singular) with All are well (plural).
Personal or Indefinite Pronouns
- you, yours, your*
- they, them, theirs, their*
The pronouns you and they may be either personal—with a specific antecedent—or indefinite—with an unspecified antecedent—depending on context.
*Your and their are possessive determiners, not pronouns, but are included to complete the paradigm of the grammatical functions of indefinite pronouns.
Grammatical Functions of Indefinite Pronouns
Most of the indefinite pronouns perform six grammatical functions in the English language. The six functions are:
- Subject complement
- Direct object
- Indirect object
- Prepositional complement
- Anyone can play guitar. (subject)
- Enough is enough. (subject complement)
- We will purchase nothing. (direct object)
- Give someone a hug. (indirect object)
- A good person always thinks of others first. (prepositional complement)
- One person's trash is another's treasure. (determinative)
However, only the (1) singular indefinite -one pronouns, (2) singular indefinite -body pronouns, (3) other singular indefinite pronouns, and (4) personal or indefinite pronouns typically perform all six grammatical functions. The (5) singular indefinite -thing pronouns, (6) plural indefinite pronouns, and (7) singular or plural indefinite pronouns typically do not function as determinatives because relationships indicated with the apostrophe s or s apostrophe ('s or s') clitic in English are generally limited to people and other animate beings. However, although some indefinite pronouns function as determinatives more often than others, all indefinite pronouns can perform all six grammatical functions.
Indefinite Pronoun versus Determiner
Similar to the misunderstanding between personal pronouns and possessive determiners, the difference between indefinite pronouns and determiners also sometimes results in confusion for many English language students. For example, compare the following two sentences:
- Most students turned in some homework.
- Most turned in some.
In the first sentence, the determiners most and some function as determinatives of the nouns students and homework. However, in the second sentence, the indefinite pronouns most and some function as the subject and direct object of the sentence, replacing the noun phrases most students and some homework. The confusion arises because the form of the indefinite pronoun (most, some) is spoken and written identically to the form of the determiner (most, some). However, indefinite pronouns are different in both grammatical form (what a word looks like) and grammatical function (what a word does) from determiners.
For more information related to the indefinite pronouns in English, please refer to the following Bright Hub articles:
The accompanying printable vocabulary sheet the indefinite pronouns in English is available for download at English Indefinite Pronouns Reference Sheet.