Chapter 1-3-8: Indefinite Pronouns
An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun referring to an identifiable but not specified person or thing. This pronoun does not refer to a specific person or thing. An indefinite pronoun conveys the idea of all, any, none, or some. Always use the third-person singular (he / she / it) form of the verb.
The highlighted words in the following sentences are indefinite pronouns:
Many were invited to our home, but only ten showed up.
Here, many acts as the subject of the compound verb were invited.
Our home had been searched and everything was thrown onto the floor.
In this example, everything acts as a subject of the compound verb was thrown.
They sold everything they stole from our home to the pawn shop.
In this sentence, everything is the direct object of the verb sold.
Although the police looked for clues, they found none.
Again, the indefinite pronoun functions as a direct object since none is the direct object of found.
I will give everyone a photograph of the suspect.
In this example, everyone is the indirect object of the verb give—the direct object is the noun phrase a photograph of the suspect.
Give a photo to each.
Here each is the object of the preposition to.
Confusion Surrounding Singular Indefinite Pronouns Used Inclusively
Indefinite pronouns sometimes act as antecedents / subjects in sentences. Problems occur for both native and second language speakers alike when these pronouns in the singular are used to refer to people or things in an "inclusive" context. The words "inclusive indefinite singular pronouns" mean that these pronouns are being used in a context that refers inclusively to a group of people—usually to males and females alike.
Let's begin by taking a look at a few examples that are grammatically correct and incorrect in the purest and most formal sense of "correctness":
CORRECT: Everyone on the men's football team is required to open his luggage at the border. (His agrees with everyone since this is an all-male team.)
CORRECT: Everyone on the women's football team is required to open her luggage at the border. (Her agrees with everyone since this is an all-female team.)
CORRECT: Everyone is required to open his or her luggage at the border. (His or her agrees with everyone since everyone is inclusive to all genders.)
INCORRECT: Everyone on the men's football team is required to open their luggage at the border. Everyone is required to open their luggage at the border.
The sentences marked as "correct" contain pronouns that are both singular and inclusive.
The sentences marked as "incorrect" are nonetheless interesting: most people have often overheard similar sentences in conversation. This is because it would be cumbersome to constantly use "his or her." Can you imagine someone saying, "everyone is responsible for his or her luggage. Anyone that does not have an identification tag on his or her baggage should report to the service counter. By the way, someone left his or her bag up at the front—please come and claim your bag." It's much easier to replace his or her with a single, all-inclusive pronoun. For example, you will often hear Anglophones using "their" or "they" in speech in order to refer vaguely to people and to be non-gender specific.
THE ISSUE, THE PROBLEM, THE CONFUSION
In speech and in informal writing, it is acceptable to use inclusive plural pronouns such as their and they. On the other hand, formal writing technically requires the his or her formulation. The issue at stake is whether or not this is acceptable in formal writing. Some highly respected institutions state that "yes," this is acceptable, while others state that "no," it is not. In your particular case, you'll want to check with your instructor or supervisor to learn what your institution considers acceptable use. For the purpose of the quizzes and tests associated with this website, the "correct" his or her formulation is required.