For the longest time, I’ve had three faded sticky notes taped to the side of my computer. They’re labeled “singular,” “plural,” and “singular/plural.” Under each label, I’ve listed words that give me grammatical fits.
I rely on these notes to work out agreement issues with indefinite pronouns—words like each, few, and none that refer to an undefined person, amount, or thing.
When used as a subject, some indefinite pronouns always require a singular verb, some always require a plural verb, and others can go either way depending on the situation.
I have trouble keeping track, and I don't think I'm the only one.
Agreement errors with indefinite problems are among the most common sentence mistakes we encounter in business writing. Let’s review how to avoid them.
What pronouns need singular verbs?
These indefinite pronouns are singular and require a singular verb to agree.
- anybody, everybody, nobody, somebody
- anyone, everyone, no one, someone
- anything, everything, nothing, something
- each, either, neither, one, this
So, if the indefinite pronoun ends in body, one, or thing, it is singular.
Nobody was sent an invitation.
Everyone needs a badge to enter the building.
Be careful with each.
Although it may seem to indicate more than one, each is a singular pronoun and requires a singular verb. Ignore the words or phrases that come between any singular indefinite pronoun and its verb.
Each of the new employees is (not are) supposed to meet in the cafeteria for orientation.
What pronouns need plural verbs?
These indefinite pronouns are plural and require a plural verb.
- both, few, many, most, several
Few are offered an opportunity to work abroad.
Most take advantage of opportunities closer to home.
What pronouns can be singular or plural?
These indefinite pronouns are also known as quantity words and may be either singular or plural, depending on the nouns they refer to.
- all, any, most, part, half, none, some
When one of these pronouns is used as a subject, you must look at the prepositional phrase that comes after it to decide if the pronoun is singular or plural.
Some of the cookies were missing.
Some of the cookie was missing.
The first sentence reports the alarming condition of losing multiple cookies, while the second reports the less alarming situation in which one cookie had a bite out of it. You discover whether some is singular or plural by looking at the object of the preposition—cookie or cookies.
But wait! Didn’t you say earlier I should ignore the words that come between an indefinite pronoun and its corresponding verb?
Yes, that's true—but only with singular indefinite pronouns like each, not with quantity words like all.
This seemingly contradictory advice is one reason why indefinite pronouns cause so much confusion and why I have sticky notes taped to my computer.
If this same issue confuses you, by all means, tape your own notes, though it might be easier (and less obtrusive) to bookmark this eTip.