As the writing specialist for Johnson & Wales University’s College of Online Education, it is my job to help students to improve their writing skills. Today, I bring you a common grammatical quandary—what to do with a singular indefinite pronoun.
Let’s review. A pronoun is a word that can function by itself as a noun phrase (e.g. I, you, he, they, it). An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun that does not refer to any person, amount, or thing in particular.
Here are a few examples of the most common singular indefinite pronouns:
In terms of its use in academic writing, the issue I see most often is the substitution of the plural, when actually it is the singular form that is grammatically correct. Remember that, when you use a singular indefinite pronoun, the corresponding pronoun or verb used to refer to or to describe this pronoun should also ALWAYS be singular!
Let’s look at a few examples:
- “Somebody left her shoulder bag on the back of the chair.”
In this example, “Somebody” refers to “her.” It would be incorrect to write, “Somebody left their shoulder bag on the back of the chair.”
- “Anyone can earn a living as a freelance writer.”
“Anyone” is a singular indefinite pronoun, so the verb “earn” takes the singular form as well.
- “Anyone who wants to go to the game should bring his money in tomorrow.”
As an alternative, you could write, “People who want to go to the game should bring their money in tomorrow.” Note the difference in the verb forms; “want” is in the plural form because, in this example, “people” is being used as a plural count noun, while “wants” is in the singular form because “anyone” is a singular pronoun.
- “Everyone in the club must pay his or her dues next week.”
In this example, “Everyone” refers to “his” or “her.” Note the gender-fair use of language here: “his” or “her” versus just saying “his.”
Exceptions to The Rule
There is a difference, of course, between formal written English and the informal spoken version. While it is acceptable to say, “Nobody wants their instructor to leave for sabbatical,” you do want to adhere to the proper grammatical convention when composing your college-level papers and projects.
For student help and even more tips and strategies, please visit my Student Writing Support website.
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