Anything Goes

Should we have an anything goes attitude about indefinite pronouns?

By Jo Ann Zimmerman

Anything Goes

Recently, the "New York Times" On Language column opened a grammatical can of worms with its commentary about indefinite pronouns (you can read the column for yourself here). The debate regarding making words such as everyone, anybody, someone, and nobody agree with personal pronouns in a gender neutral way is heating up. For a long time, everybody just followed well-established conventions.

The problem is, although indefinite pronouns such as anyone, some, everybody, and all don't refer to particular people or entities, when personal pronouns refer back to them, they must do so in the correct case and number. This can be tricky because many of the conventions are counterintuitive. Everybody, for example, clearly refers to more than one person, yet it takes a singular verb, as in "Everybody is going on the field trip." This means that everybody will need to bring in his or her (not their) signed permission slip no later than Monday, and good luck with that.

Imagine my horror when the Times article suggested adopting the singular "they"! The confusion surrounding collective nouns is bad enough (data is, or data are?) without opening the barn door to anything goes.

Another potential source of confusion regarding indefinite pronouns is when they are used as adjectives. Remember that pronouns are de facto nouns; they do noun jobs, acting as subjects or objects. In the sentence,

"All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,"

"all" is an indefinite pronoun (and notice the singular verb is).

But, don't be fooled by sentences such as this:

"If all men count with you, but none too much."

Here all is an adjective, modifying men--it tells us how many. None, on the other hand, is an indefinite pronoun.

Leave no child behind in pronoun puzzlement with these lessons.

Pronoun Lesson Plans:

What Was that Pronoun?: You can use this comprehensive, web-based lesson plan as an introduction to the different types of pronouns for students in fifth through eighth grades. There are lots of links to practice pages.

Definitely Singular: This middle school lesson plan holds down the fort on singular verbs for indefinite pronouns. Be sure to point out which practice sentences use the words as pronouns and which as adjectives.

Subject-Verb Agreement: For high school students, here's a broader lesson on singular and plural subjects and verbs that does a good job differentiating between the indefinite pronouns that are singular, those that are plural, and those tricky guys that go either way.

Reviewing Language: Aimed at seventh through ninth grades, this lesson is structured to teach singular and plural indefinite pronoun usage in the context of student writing.