Andrew Giangola, author of The Weekend Starts on Wednesday and a longtime friend, sent Max Syntax this question a few months ago regarding a grammar point in his hugely successful first book, which profiles the wild and sincerely devoted fans of NASCAR.
Specifically, Andrew asked about the pronoun in his book dedication:
“For anyone who’s ever bought a ticket to watch cars run around a lopsided circle.”
It just struck me—does “anyone” work? Or should it be “everyone”?
The answer: Either one works. Both “anyone” and “everyone” are indefinite pronouns. The indefinite pronouns are
anyone anybody anything
everyone everybody everything
no one [spelled as two words] nobody nothing
someone somebody something
Every one of these takes a third-person singular verb, such as “is,” “has,” “reads,” “eats,” “blogs,” and so on. It seems pretty straightforward and definitive.
Indefinite pronouns, definitive as they seem, hide a few gnarly bits of grammar amid their indefinity. For one thing, the singular pronouns that we can use to refer back to them come in two varieties: masculine and feminine. And if indefinite pronouns take singular verbs, they take singular pronouns, too. (Pronouns always stand in for something else; they refer back to something. That thing they refer back to is their antecedent.)
Think, “All the drivers looked at the track. Everyone grabbed his wheel.” Um, “her wheel.” Um, “his or her wheel.” Um, “their wheel.” Um, “their wheels.” Um, I don’t want to write this sentence! Danica Patrick will run me down!
Yes, the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun—which A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie-the-Pooh, once suggested should be “heesh,” as in “If John or Mary come, heesh will want to play tennis”—does present problems. Today, most grammarians accept the gender-neutral plural pronoun with an indefinite pronoun antecedent, but there are a few singular sticklers out there.
But there are other issues with indefinite pronouns as well. Take the case of “no one” vs. “none.” For decades, some prescriptive grammarians insisted that “none” be read as indicating “not one,” thus making it take singular verbs and singular pronouns. This was fine when we wrote things like “None of the drivers ate tofu” but not so fine when it led to “None of the NASCAR spokespeople has a missing tooth” and “None of the hockey player’s teeth is missing.”
Sheer nonsense, replied other grammarians, who held that “none” could be read as “not any” and thus take plural verbs and pronouns, generating examples such as “None of the NASCAR fans have missing teeth” and “None of them are anything less than fascinating.”
And they are fascinating, every one of them. No less fascinating than pronouns, of which there are six types. Or seven. Or five, depending on which grammar authority one consults.
Can you list the seven types of pronouns? Or five? What’s the silliest interpretation of a grammar rule, like the “none” examples, that you’ve ever come across?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.