Episode 111: January 27, 2012
Today we’ll be talking about indefinite pronouns such as everyone and somebody.
Everyone Versus Everybody
Lately, listeners have asked a lot of questions about indefinite pronouns, such as everyone. For example, Dean asks, “When is it appropriate to say everybody, and when is it proper to say everyone?” Well, Dean, the short answer to your question is that the words everyone and everybody are interchangeable. They both mean “every person,” so use whichever one sounds best in your particular sentence.
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Everyone Versus Every One
And a cutely named listener from New York, Pinky, wants to know, “Is everyone one word or two?” Pinky, everyone can be two words or one word, but nine times out of ten it's one word. When you use it to mean the same thing as “all people,” then it’s one word.
Singular or Plural
When it comes to indefinite pronouns, grammarians disagree about whether words such as everyone and somebody are singular or plural when you use a pronoun to refer to them. Several listeners have recently asked about this conundrum.
For example, Linda asks, “Is everyone and, likewise, everybody singular or plural?” And Connie from College Station, Texas, asks, “Are you hanging in there on pronoun references to singular forms such as everyone and everybody?”
Although I'll focus on the words everyone and everybody, the same rules apply to the words no one, nobody, anyone, anybody, someone, and somebody. Earlier I stated that grammarians don’t agree on the issue of indefinite pronouns. There are actually two issues concerning this topic: Are the words everyone and everybody singular or plural? And can I use a plural pronoun (such as their) to refer to these words? Grammarians actually agree that the words everyone and everybody are singular. Grammar Girl (that is I!) herself explains the answer in her book. She says, everyone sounds like a lot of people, but in grammar land, everyone is a singular noun and takes a singular verb. For example:
Everyone loves Squiggly. (This is right because everyone is singular and paired with a singular verb, loves.)
Everyone are happy. (This is wrong because it's pairing the singular noun everyone with a plural verb, are.)
Everyone hates subject-verb agreement. (This is right because everyone and hates are both singular.)
It’s OK to hate subject-verb agreement, but sometimes you just have to do things you don’t want to do. I promise to pick weeds if you promise to make sure your subjects agree with your verbs. Now, if you’re in Britain, you don’t have to worry so much about everyone and everybody because sometimes they’re considered plural. In Britain, it’s standard to use everyone and everybody with a singular verb and plural pronoun (1).
That's not so in America, however. So we’re now ready to tackle the second question: whether it’s OK to use the plural pronouns their, them, and they to refer to everybody or everyone. American grammarians don't agree on this issue. Some feel that if you can't write, “Everyone are happy,” then you shouldn't be able to write, “Everyone is putting a smile on THEIR face.” These grammarians cringe when they hear the word their used this way.
The root of this problem is that English doesn't have a word to refer to a singular noun of undetermined gender. As a solution, grammarians in the past have suggested that writers use just his to refer to everyone or everybody, but most now consider this solution to be sexist. Some alternate his with her; some use the phrase his or her. But I can’t imagine most of you could comfortably utter the following sentence: “Everyone is putting a smile on his or her face.” Therefore, I don’t recommend you use this type of construction unless you want to sound like a crusty old curmudgeon.
Sticklers have to face reality, though. For example, noted grammarian Bryan Garner has this to say about writers' tendencies to use their to refer to these singular pronouns: “Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they’re irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them (2).”
Grammarians agree that there is no perfect solution to this problem. I favor the advice that Grammar Girl has given in a previous episode. One of her suggestions is to rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem. So let’s go back to the problematic sentence we saw earlier: “Everyone is putting a smile on their face.” This one is fairly easy to rewrite: you could say, “Everyone is smiling.” Let’s make up another one: “Everyone had their hands in their pockets because it was so cold.” It wouldn’t sound so bad to write, “All the people had their hands in their pockets because it was so cold.” Just make sure your rewritten sentence fits in with the other sentences around it.