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Author Topic: Grappling with the grammar of the indefinite pronouns  (Read 133 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: March 19, 2017, 07:20:15 AM »

I can’t help but wince—sometimes even groan audibly—when an impressive speaker ruins a perfectly fluent speech in English with a hesitant, obviously uncomfortable delivery of a sentence like “Everybody must give his share to this noble undertaking.” Such stumbles show a less than full grasp of the grammar of the indefinite pronouns, which as we are taught early in English should always agree with the number of their antecedent nouns as well as with their gender.

This subject-verb disagreement problem frequently arises when an indefinite pronoun is used as doer or receiver of the action in a sentence with no specific antecedent noun. It’s easy to figure out if an indefinite pronoun is singular or plural, of course, but there’s often no way of knowing beforehand what gender to use for its possessive form. Consider the indefinite pronouns “all” and “somebody” in this sentence, for instance: “All of us [is, are] agreed that this mission must be accomplished, but somebody who has [his, her] personal interests foremost in [his, her] mind must inhibit [himself, herself] from joining it.”

That the verb “are” for the pronoun “all” is clear, of course, but whether to use “his” or “her” as the possessive of the pronoun “somebody,” and whether to use “himself” or “herself” as its reflexive pronoun, are very thorny choices indeed! This ambiguity has given rise to certain conventions—some self-evident and some rather arbitrary—to make sure that the grammar of the indefinite pronouns remains beyond reproach.

Before discussing these conventions, though, we need to review the indefinite pronouns to be doubly sure which are notionally singular, plural, or which can be either singular or plural depending on how they are used.

The definitely singular indefinite pronouns: “another,” “anybody,” “anyone,” “anything,” “each,” “either,” “everybody,” “everyone,” “everything,” “little,” “much,” “neither,” “nobody,” “no one,” “nothing,” “one,” “other,” “somebody,” “someone,” and “something.” Except for three, they take singular possessive pronouns and singular reflexive pronouns; the only problem is that their gender is indeterminate. (The exceptions are “little,” “much,” and “other,” which can be used in more limited ways: “Little is done by people who only talk.” “Much is accomplished through hard work.” “Other than him, who is to blame?”)

The definitely plural indefinite pronouns: “both,” “few,” “many,” “others,” and “several.” All five are no-brainers as to their number: they are plural through and through. Each can take the plural possessive pronoun “their” and the reflexive “themselves,” and we don’t even have to think about gender at all when using them.

The indefinite pronouns that are either singular or plural: “all,” “any,” “more,” “most,” “none,” and “some.” They are singular or plural depending on what they refer to. Singular: “All of that book is pure, unmitigated thrash.” Plural: “The singers are at the studio; all are rehearsing their songs.”

We still have the recurrent dilemma of what gender to use for the singular indefinite possessives. The default usage, of course, is the possessive pronoun “his” when no information is available about the antecedent noun’s gender: “Everybody must give his share to this noble undertaking.” Only in one instance, when the statement refers to a known all-female group, is this default ignored: “Everybody in this women’s league must give her share to this noble undertaking.”

Users of the indefinite possessive have come up with two more options to avoid the male bias in using “him” as default. The first option is to use “his or her,” as in “Everybody must give his or her share to this undertaking.” However, this becomes very awkward with repeated use, so that many writers and speakers take the much better option of reconstructing the entire sentence, using a plural antecedent indefinite pronoun instead do away with the need to establish gender: “All must give their share to this noble undertaking.”

This essay,1032nd in the series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Education Section of the March 9, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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