Addressing Tricky Subject-Verb Agreement with Indefinite Pronouns
 

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—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

March 12, 2020 

Indefinite Confusion

“The only way you can communicate at a high level is to be conscious of everything you write—every comma, every pronoun, every word, and all their implications.”

— David Foster Wallace

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.

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Play the Editor!

Choose the correct verb to complete each sentence. Scroll down for answers.

  1. Everyone voting in the Missouri primary (need, needs) a valid form of identification to vote.
  2. Nobody (cast, casts) an official vote without proper identification; however, those without an ID can still cast a provisional ballot. 
  3. All of the polling locations (open, opens) at 6:00 a.m. and (close, closes) at 7:00 p.m. 
  4. Anybody in line by 7:00 p.m. (get, gets) to vote, even if the polls officially close at 7:00.  
  5. Some of the candidates who dropped out (appear, appears) on the ballots. 
  6. Each of the polling places (has, have) local election workers on site to manage the process. 
  7. Each of the locations (is, are) also staffed by at least two Republican and two Democratic election judges.
  8. Part of an election judge's role (involves, involve) periodically checking to ensure the number of signatures in the roster matches the number of ballots in the ballot box. 
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Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide and Courses for more help with sentence agreement.

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Editor’s Answers

  1. Everyone voting in the Missouri primary needs a valid form of identification to vote.
  2. Nobody casts an official vote without proper identification; however, those without an ID can still cast a provisional ballot. 
  3. All of the polling locations open at 6:00 a.m. and close at 7:00 p.m. 
  4. Anybody in line by 7:00 p.m. gets to vote, even if the polls officially close at 7:00.  
  5. Some of the candidates who dropped out appear on the ballots. 
  6. Each of the polling places has local election workers on site to manage the process. 
  7. Each of the locations is also staffed by at least two Republican and two Democratic election judges.
  8. Part of an election judge's role involves periodically checking to ensure the number of signatures in the roster matches the number of ballots in the ballot box. 
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