28. indefinite pronouns, indefinite adjectives

Indefinite pronouns / adjectives are words like somebody, anybody, some, nobody, each, every, whoever / whatever etc.. All these indefinite pronouns focus on different aspects. There is a very big difference between "Somebody can do it" and "Anybody can do it", to illustrate it with an example or between "Someone is knocking at the door" and "Everyone is knocking at the door" to illustrate it with another example. We will try to describe the aspects to be taken into account when discussing about indefinite pronouns / aspects. These aspects are more or less the same in all languages.

The term indefinit, from latin undefined, is as missleading as many other terms taken from latin. Latin in linguistics is kind of a cancer, because many terms taken from latin are actually confusing and missleading and are a hindrance for understanding the really existing reality. Most of the indefinite pronouns are not undefined as all or they are as undefined as any pronoun.

1) Anybody can do that, that is not difficult.
2) Someone can do that, that's not difficult.
3) Nobody can do that, that's too difficult.
4) All of you can do that, that's not difficult.

It is hard to see what is indefinite in the pronouns anybody, someone, nobody and all. If anybody can do that, the potential executor of the action is very well and very precisely described. Much more precisely described that in the case of he / she. In the case of he / she we must know to whom the pronoun refers to, but in the case of anybody that is not needed. Any human being can do that. We have a very clear idea who can do that. Nobody is not undefined at all. Nobody is nobody. It is true, that we don't know nobody, but this is obvious, because the Mr. Nobody doesn't exist. All is very defined as well. If someone affirms that all kids like chocolate, this is perhaps not true, but the group who like chocolate is very well defined. Perhaps someone is undefined. Someone means that potentially there is a man or woman able to do that, however we do not know who.

In English we have to add something to convert the adjective into a noun, pronoun: "Everyone is happy" <=> adjective: "Every child is happy", "Each of them got enough" <=> "Each child got enough". In Portuguese very often the noun and the adjective doesn't differ in the form.

a) noun: Everybody likes apples.
b) adjective: Every vegetarian like apples.

The following table shows the aspects to be taken into account in the use of the indefinite pronouns. The list is a little bit theoretical. All languages make these distinction, because they are necessary to describe the reality or the different situations that may occur. However in some languages the actual meaning is to be deduced from the context, the same indefinite pronoun can be used to describe two different situations, while in another language there a different indefinite pronoun to be used.

This author would say that it is useful to see that. A definition of the type "We use indefinite pronouns to refer to people or things without saying exactly who or what they are" is not very helpful, because this definition doesn't explain why we need so many of them. The issue is a little bit more complicated, it is as complicated as the real life where we are confronted with a lot of different situations.

Everybody is, not only potentially, executor or goal of the action described by the verb.
Everyone gives ten euros.
I see each of them.
Everybody can potentially be the executor or the goal of an already executed action.
Somebody will know how it works.
I will meet somebody.
Everybody can potentially be the executor or the goal of an already executed action.
Someone has stolen my wallet.
I will meet anyone.
The executor or the goal of an action is not arbitrary, but unknown.
Somebody is at the door.
I see somebody.
Part of a group can be the executor or the goal of the action describe by the verb.
Some can already read and write.
Some people can't be satisfied.
The pronoun / adjectives indicates that nobody or nothing is the executor or the goal of the action described by the verb.
Nobody knows it.
I have nobody.

It is crucial to undertand that indefinite pronouns, focus on different aspects.

1) Everybody got 100 dollars.
2) Somebody got 100 dollars.

In 1) the indefinite pronoun is not indefinite at all. It is very definite. It is just everybody. In 2) not all the people got 100 dollars, only one of them got 100 dollars. In the following example there is a difference as well, although not the same as in this example.

1) Someone loves you.
2) Anybody loves you.

The difference is obvious for any English native speaker. There is one difference that is not really made in English or only noticeable in extrem example. In this example the difference between everybody and somebody is very sutil. This author would say that English native speakers, the author of these line is not a native speaker, won't notice any difference.

1) Everybody can do that, that is not difficult.
2) Anybody can do that, that is not difficult.

It is clear that if anybody chosen arbitrarily can do it, than everybody can do it as well. Whoever we choose, he can do it. That is only possible, if any element of the group we refer to can do it, otherwise would exist the possibility that the one we choose can't do it. Arbitrarity doesn't play any role in this case. However in this example there is a difference between everybody and anybody.

1) I think that somebody knows it.
2) I think that anybody knows it.

In 1) there is perhaps a single person who knows that. In 2) everyone knows it. In case 2) there is no difference between anybody and somebody / someone. This interference doesn't exist in roman languages. Qulaquer, anybody, stresses the arbitrarity and have always a very different meaning than algum / alguém.

Every indefinite pronoun / adjective stresses on a certain aspect. In other languages perhaps more than in English. There are indefinite pronouns that stresses the fact that EACH element of a group can be the executor or the goal of an action, there are indefinite pronouns that stresses that any arbitrarily chosen element can be the executor or the goal of an action, there are indefinite pronouns that stresses simply the fact, that the element is unknown etc. see table above. Sometimes the differences are very subtle.

All men are mortal.
Every man is mortal.

From a logical point of view there is no difference between all men and every men. However the novel of Simone de Beauvoir refers to the species of human beings and not the single individuals and therefore it is all. It is always translated with all, in any language.

French: Tous les hommes sont mortels.
Spanish: Todos los hombres son mortales.
italiano: Tutti gli uomini sono mortali.
german: Alle Menschen sind sterblich.
Portuguese: Todos os homens são mortais.

The same is true for "All you can eat". In this case the focus is on the whole things that can be eaten. The point is not that one can eat every single dish, it is not "Everything you can eat", but that one can eat as much as one can.

To resume: The aspect to be taken into account are the same in all languages, but some stresses these aspects more than others and sometimes one indefinite pronoun in one language can only be used in a special context, whereas there is an interference in the other language.

Some of the indefinite pronouns can only be used as pronouns, some of them can be used as well as adjectives. Some are variable, complies in gender and number to the noun they refer to or to the noun they stay for, others are invariable. The whole system looks like that.

singular plural
masculine feminie masculine feminine





qualquerqualquer quaisquer


In the following chapters we will discuss these issues more in detail.

contact privacy statement imprint