Everyone, everybody, and referents



I've noticed that singular words like everyone and everybody (as well as other indefinite pronouns, such as someone, somebody, nobody, etc.) are often used with plural possessives. For example, I often hear people say things like

Everyone needs to pick up their garbage.

Is it becoming grammatically acceptable to do this? I thought the correct way was

Everyone needs to pick up his or her garbage.


Jonas P.


Whether to use a singular or plural pronoun to refer to a singular indefinite pronoun depends on how "correct" you want to be.

A study by Nesbitt, reported on page 305 of The Grammar Book, 2nd ed. (Heinle & Heinle, 1999), says:

The everyone.their combination actually occurred far more frequently than the sexist his form and the wordy his or her form.

A subsequent study by Lagunoff, also reported on page 305, shows these examples of real language:

Someone left their sweatshirt here.

No one sends their children to public school any more.

Has anyone lost their pen?

Who ever gets to imagine that they might become an artist?

Every (parent/mother/father) thinks their baby is cute.

Lagunoff concludes that teachers can certainly present the they as an option students can use to refer to indefinite pronouns in informal spoken and written contexts.

Similarly, The Collins COBUILD English Dictionary (HarperCollins, 1995) contains this sentence under its entry for everyone, illustrating existing usage of they to refer to everyone:

Everyone in the street was shocked when they heard the news.

Betty Azar, in Understanding and Using English Grammar, 3rd ed. (Pearson Education, 2002, chart 8-2, p.134), states:

A singular pronoun is used in formal English to refer to an indefinite pronoun, as in (f) and (g) [below]. In everyday informal English, a plural personal pronoun is often used to refer to an indefinite pronoun, as in (h).


Somebody left his book on the desk.
Everyone has his or her own ideas.


Somebody left their book on the desk.
Everyone has their own ideas.

In summary, it appears that they and their have logically evolved into acceptable usage as referents to everyone. His, her, or his/her, of course, are suitable for formal use.