Grammar Mini-Blog: Is "Everyone" singular or plural?

Who hasn't heard (or said) something like "Everyone needs to take their shoes off!" or "No one has had their dinner yet!"?

In English, we struggle with pronouns. We have lovely gender-neutral plural pronouns, like "they," "their," and "them,"* but all of our singular pronouns are gendered (or 'it,' and who wants to be an it?).

To make matters even more complicated, we have indefinite pronouns,  like "everyone," which seem to capture lots of people, but are actually singular ("everyone" means each and every one... one, singular).

So, when the subject of a sentence is "everyone" or "no one," which are both singular, the verbs and pronouns that go with those subjects should be singular also.

WRONG: Everyone needs to take their shoes off!

CORRECT: Everyone needs to take his or her shoes off!

Less awkward/more inclusive alternatives: All of you need to take your shoes off!  OR All students need to take their shoes off!

(With this method, you make the subject plural, so it agrees with the pronouns you prefer.)

WRONG: No one has had their dinner yet.

CORRECT: No one has had his or her dinner yet.

Less awkward/more inclusive alternatives: None of us has had dinner yet. OR  None of them have had dinner yet.

We do we insist on making such awkward sentences correct?

Back in the day, people always used male pronouns to refer to an unknown person. "Everyone needs to take his shoes off."  When people finally figured out that the generalized "he" left out half of the population, we were left with the awkward "he or she" construction.  It's inclusive or both men and women, but it's long and wordy, and it's not truly inclusive because both he and she are gendered.  So, when people talk, they use plural pronouns, which are conveniently gender neutral. But, they are technically grammatically wrong to match singular indefinite pronouns with plural pronouns. Does it matter? In everyday speech, probably not.  But, standardized tests like SAT and ACT love to try to trick people with these rules. So, no matter how you speak, KNOW that singular indefinite pronouns should be matched singular verbs and pronouns. 

What are some other indefinite pronouns that sound like they capture lots of peoplebut are actually singular? Anybody, anyone, everybody, everyone, nobody, no one, someone, everything, something, nothing, each, either, neither. 

Also know that there are often ways to be both inclusive and grammatically correct.  Often, making your subject plural will solve all of these problems:

How do you use these words correctly (but often awkwardly)?

Everybody is sad about his or her grade.

Each of the twins has his or her own style.

Something in your purse is poking his or her head out. 

Nobody is doing his or her homework. 

Neither is interested in doing his or her chores.

How can you express these ideas but avoid the "he or she" and "his or her" contructions?

All of the students are sad about their grades.

Both twins have their own style.

Something in your purse is poking its head out. ("It" is a great singular pronoun when not referring to a human!)

None of the students are doing their homework. 

None of the kids are interested in doing their chores.

These types of questions come up on the grammar section of almost every high school and college admissions test. So, pay attention to singular/plural pronouns and don't rely on your gut for these questions.  The way we speak -- and the way that feels right and comfortable -- is often wrong. 

 * As we become more thoughtful about transgender and gender-non-binary people, many have adopted plural pronouns to refer to singular people. People use the plural pronouns to refer to individuals for many reasons: to be respectful of people who prefer those pronouns, to be inclusive of people who do not consider themselves either "he" or "she," or as a political statement, to register disatisfaction with language/grammar that forces people to be gendered. This change in grammar practice is an active one that is becoming more and more popular. For the time being, standardized tests use plural pronouns only in the case of plural subjects. We expect these rules to go through some changes in upcoming years, and standardized tests may reflect those changes.  But, as long as standardized tests hold the line on singular/plural pronouns, we think it's important for students to know the rules.  We would also like to encourage students to find ways to use grammar that is both inclusive, smooth, and technically grammatically correct, thus, when possible, use plural subjects to match plural pronouns.