Sunday, April 17, 2011

Know the indefinite pronouns well to avoid subject-disagreement errors

As we all know, there’s a good number of pronouns in the English language that don’t specify the identity of its subject. They are known as the indefinite pronouns, such as “anybody,” “everyone,” ‘some,” and “none.” Since it has no specific referent, we can’t be too sure if a particular indefinite pronoun is singular or plural. And when an indefinite pronoun is the antecedent of a possessive pronoun in a sentence, it’s often a puzzler whether to use the masculine, feminine, or neuter form for that possessive pronoun.

To avoid confusion, English observes certain conventions for the grammar of indefinite pronouns. Under these conventions, indefinite pronouns are classified into three categories: the definitely singular indefinite pronouns, the definitely plural indefinite pronouns, and the indefinite pronouns that can be either singular or plural depending on context. We have no choice but to memorize the indefinite pronouns that belong to each of these categories, for when constructing sentences that involve indefinite pronouns, gut feel is simply not enough for avoiding subject-verb disagreement errors.

To make you more conversant with the indefinite pronouns, I am posting the essay below that that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2003. I’m sure that reading it would go a long way towards reducing subject-verb disagreement problems in your English to the barest minimum or, with luck, to none at all. (April 17, 2011)      

The grammar of indefinite pronouns

It is a long-established and utterly predictable aspect of English grammar that (1) the verb must always agree with the number—either singular or plural—of the noun or pronoun that does or states the action, and that (2) the pronoun or its possessive form must always agree with the gender—male, female, or neuter—of its antecedent noun. Thus, we routinely make verbs perfectly agree with the number of the noun or pronoun doing or stating them: “Eve loves apples straight from the tree.” “Eve and Adam love apples straight from the tree.” And we also take it for granted that the pronoun and possessive pronoun must perfectly agree with the gender of their respective antecedent nouns: “Eve loves applesher friend Adam also loves them.” The possessive pronoun “her,” of course, has the female noun “Eve” as antecedent, while the pronoun “them” has the neuter noun “apples” as antecedent.

Problems arise, however, when we start using indefinite pronouns—those words that, without specific antecedent nouns, we use as doers or receivers of the action. It is often obvious whether an indefinite pronoun is singular or plural, but there is often no way of knowing what gender to use for its possessive form. Take, for instance, the indefinite pronouns “all” and “somebody” in this sentence: “All of us [is, are] agreed that the task must be done, but somebody who has [his, her] personal interests foremost in [his, her] mind must inhibit [himself, herself] from doing it.”

That we should use 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 our grammar of the indefinite pronouns remains beyond reproach.

Before discussing these conventions, though, let us make a quick review of the indefinite pronouns. We have to be doubly sure which of them are notionally singular, plural, or can be either way 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.” As proof that each of them is singular, we can use practically all of them to fill in the blank in the following sentence with no trouble at all: “________ is to blame for what happened.” (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?”) All also take singular possessive pronouns and singular reflexive pronouns. The only problem is that their gender is indeterminate.

The definitely plural indefinite pronouns: “both,” “few,” “many,” “others,” and “several.” All five, of course, are no-brainers as to their number: they are plural through and through any which way we put them. 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.

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.”

Now, let us go back to the dilemma of what gender to use for the singular indefinite possessives. As we all know, the standard practice in English is to use the possessive pronoun “his” when no information is available about the antecedent noun’s gender: “Everybody must give his share to this noble cause.” Only in one instance can we ignore this generic way of putting the indefinite singular possessive pronoun and still be grammatically correct—when the statement refers to a known all-female group, as in: “Everybody in this women’s league must give her share to this noble cause.”

This male bias in the English language obviously has rankled among women for hundreds of years, so users of the indefinite possessive have come up with two effective schemes to avoid the problem altogether. One way is to consistently use the phrase “his or her” when the indefinite possessive is required: “Everybody must give his or her share to this cause.” This becomes very awkward with repeated use, however, so that many writers and speakers would rather rewrite entire sentences so they could use a plural antecedent indefinite pronoun and do away with the need to establish gender: “All must give their share to this noble cause.” “All of us must give our share to this cause.”

By making this the norm, English is actually taking one major step toward establishing equality of the sexes in the language.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 17, 2003 © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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