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Indefinite pronouns

David, Khan Academy's Grammar Fellow, covers three nifty features of indefinite pronouns, which are pronouns that are just a little vague, y'know?

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hey grammarians, today I'm gonna talk about the idea of the indefinite pronoun, which looks kinda complicated but really just does what it says on the tin. An indefinite pronoun is just that, it's indefinite, undefined, uncertain. These are pronouns that we use when we're not being especially specific. Words like any, anybody, each, everyone, nobody. Any time I need to remember what words fall into this category of indefinite pronouns, I just think of the song Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, originally by Solomon Burke, and then later made famous by the Rolling Stones and the Blues Brothers. So a cool thing about indefinite pronouns, actually there are a couple. Number one, they can be used as both subject or object in a sentence. So if you said to me, "David, do you want pizza?" I could respond, "Yes, please! I'd love some," using it as an object, or equally plausibly I could say, "Yes, please! Some would be great," using it as a subject. Another really cool thing about indefinite pronouns is that the words both, neither, and either retain the dual. They are some of the only words in English that refer to only two things. So these three pronouns are actually a little bit less indefinite than most indefinite pronouns because they refer to a set of two things. So if someone asks me, "Do you like mangoes or cherries more?" I could say, "I like both equally," referring to the cherries and the mangoes at the same time. And this is really strange because, in English, this dual case doesn't really exist anymore except for in very limited amounts because English distinguishes between whether or not there's one of something and more than one of something, but this is one of the very few cases where we ever distinguish between more than one of something and specifically two of something. There are not a whole lot of words in English that refer to that, so I think that's really cool. The third cool thing about indefinite pronouns is that they're usually treated as singular, usually. So words like both, neither, and either are obviously plural but there are some that are a little bit fuzzier. For example, in this sentence, "Nobody was home," we use the word was, the singular form. Even though that nobody could refer to multiple people, or it's really referring to the absence of anyone. Similarly, in this sentence "Everybody knows that I love onions," we use the word knows, just like we'd say he knows, she knows, it knows. So that's the singular form of that verb. Even though the idea of everybody would seem to refer to more than one person. The indefinite pronoun that we use to refer everybody usually conjugates the third person singular form of verbs, usually. Let's get to one of the weirder examples, though, because sometimes the context can carry you along into something that might seem a little quote, unquote "ungrammatical" but really reflects the way that language is used today. And so although you might say "Everyone is looking at me," here's an example from Garner's Modern American Usage, which is one of the several car-sized books I'm using to construct this grammar course. "Everyone was crouched behind furniture to surprise me, "but I already knew they were there." And you can see in the beginning of this sentence, we say "Everyone was," but then in the second part of the sentence, we say "they were," and we're using they to refer to everyone. So how can this be? This doesn't seem grammatical. But as Garner says, "Sometimes meaning rather than grammar governs agreement." Is this grammatical? Yes, in that it makes sense. Does it adhere concretely and in an iron-clad way to these rules that we've established? No, but language is kind of messy in that way. Sometimes the meaning of the sentence, the fact that here everyone refers to multiple people is going to override the rules that are previously established. And that's okay, as long as you're making sense. So relative pronouns are usually singular, unless the context drags them into the realm of plural. So like their name implies, sometimes indefinite pronouns can be a little... indefinite. Alright, here are the three cool things about indefinite pronouns. Number one, they can be used as subjects or objects. Both, neither, and either retain the dual form, which is super weird. And number three, indefinite pronouns are usually treated as singular. Usually. I know that's confusing, but I have faith in you. You can learn anything. David, out.