English indefinite pronouns: past and present

The study in a sentence

This study compares the -one/-body forms of indefinite pronouns (e.g. everyone/everybody).

The study finds that, although the two forms carry the same meaning, their usages followed different historical trajectories and continue to develop in competing paths.

The question

What is the difference between the following pair of sentences?

If anybody has any ideas, I would love to hear them.

If anyone has any ideas, I would love to hear them.


As you can see, they are identical except for the use of anybody or anyone.

  • It appears that this difference in word choice does not trigger a difference in meaning, making the two words functionally equivalent.
  • The same alternation can be found in the other indefinite pronouns in English as well: everybody/everyone, somebody/someone, nobody/no one.
Optical illusion showing two faces or a vase, depending on your perspective.
Two faces or a vase? (Image by Brocken Inaglory CC BY-SA 3.0)

Key concept

  • When two linguistic forms (words or phrases) can replace one another in any context, without resulting in ungrammaticality or a change in meaning, they are considered to be functionally equivalent and are called doublets.
  • Speakers of a language generally do not tolerate doublets in their linguistic repertoire.
    • When such a situation arises, as in the case of everyone vs. everybody, it will resolve itself in one of two ways: either one of the forms will be lost, or the two forms will become functionally differentiated.

Much language change in the areas of morphology, syntax and the lexicon can be viewed as competition between doublets.

How did English develop two different forms, -body and -one, that mean exactly the same thing?

Do speakers make use of -body and -one in the same way or differentiate them?

Methods

A short video showing how you can use Google Ngram Viewer to get a rough measure of how frequently a word or phrase has been used over time.

Q: what is an n-gram?

A: An "n-gram" is a term used in computational linguistics to describe a sequence of 'n' items used in a search (where 'n' stands for any number of items, such as letters in a word or words in a phrase).

Development of -body (vs -one) from 16th century to 19th century

The Answer (1)

The -body/-one forms didn’t exist in the earliest English. In fact, they entered the language at different times. The -one form, coming from the numeral "one", appeared around 1200, first in everyone. The -body form, which carried the meaning of "person", did not enter English until about 1400 in nobody.

At first, the forms acted independently. no-, for instance, heavily favoured the -body form, while every- almost always went together with -one. Over time, however, speakers came to view them as not individual lexical items but related, as a set of indefinite pronouns, made up of a quantifier (no-, some-, any-, every-) plus -one or -body. Thus, by the 19th century, the -body and -one forms came to be competitors for the position of indefinite pronoun in English.

Distribution of -body by quantifier in the British National Corpus (BNC) spoken and written data

The Answer (2)

Although -one and -body both mean the same thing, we can still see some differentiation in use. The -body forms were originally used in more informal settings like personal letters and the -one forms in more formal settings. This stylistic bias still remains today, with -body forms more common in speech and the -one forms in writing.

Nowadays, however, the -one forms are on the rise. Younger speakers use a higher percentage of -one forms in speech than older people, showing that the -one forms are starting to take over. In a couple of hundred years, no one may say nobody at all.

Classroom activities

Extension task

Investigating doublets in English: making predictions, then testing them using Google Ngram Viewer.

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

indefinite pronouns > IMD

Meet the author

Read the paper

D’Arcy, A., Haddican, B., Richards, H., Tagliamonte, S., & Taylor A. (2013). Asymmetrical trajectories: The past and present of –body/–one. Language Variation and Change, 25(3), 287–310.