Navigating Pronoun Usage: Understanding the Difference Between “Nobody” and “No One”

June 17, 2023

Lately, there has been a growing concern among writers about the limitations of the English language when it comes to pronouns. The use of the generic masculine pronoun often raises accusations of sexism.

While the eradication of sexism is a commendable goal, it presents challenges for socially conscious writers. English lacks a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun. As a result, many writers have recently turned to using “nobody” or “no one” instead.

If you’re pondering whether to join their ranks, keep reading.

The Distinction Between Nobody and No One

This article will compare “nobody” versus “no one.” I will provide example sentences for each and clarify their proper usage.

Lastly, I will share a helpful mnemonic device to assist you in deciding whether to opt for “nobody” or “no one” in your own writing.

When to Use Nobody

What does “nobody” mean? “Nobody” is a pronoun that refers to no person. It functions as a singular pronoun in sentences.

For instance,

  • Nobody wanted to talk to Sue.
  • Nobody knew the name of the fallen soldier.
  • Mourinho did not say anything of the sort, of course, but by acknowledging the subject, he ensured its forensic coverage. This is an old Mourinho trick. Nobody in soccer gets his excuses in earlier. –The New York Times

When to Use No One

What does “no one” mean? “No one” is used in a similar manner to “nobody.” As a singular pronoun, it also denotes no person.

For example,

  • No one could hit the pitcher’s curveball.
  • No one wanted to eat the dairy-free cheese substitute, so I had it all to myself.
  • The app requires the user to blink so no one can beat the system by substituting a printed photo. –The Wall Street Journal

In contemporary English, both “nobody” and “no one” are often employed as plural indefinite pronouns alongside a plural possessive pronoun when a writer wishes to avoid the perceived sexism associated with gendered pronouns. The following sentence serves as an example:

  • No one wanted to tell me why their hands were cold.

In the above sentence, a writer could substitute “nobody” for “no one” and achieve the same outcome.

While these constructions are popular, they have not yet gained universal acceptance (further details below).

No One vs. Nobody: Choosing the Appropriate Usage

In general, “no one” is a more suitable singular pronoun for academic or professional writing. “Nobody” is more commonly used in British English than in American English, but it is still advisable to opt for “no one” to maintain a formal tone. You can remember to choose “no one” by recalling the phrase “no one is number one” when engaging in formal writing.

Currently, neither “no one” nor “nobody” is universally acknowledged as a plural indefinite pronoun. As Bryan Garner, the author of Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016), argues:

“While the usage seems inevitable in the long run, careful writers of AmE will probably wait until the opposition dwindles even further” (p. 631).

Unless you are eager to be at the forefront of the battle against embedded sexism in English, it would be wise to heed Garner’s advice.

Additional strategies to minimize sexism include alternating between singular masculine and feminine pronouns, using both simultaneously (he or she, his or her, etc.), or combining them with slashes to form creations like s/he and he/she.

These tactics have garnered varying levels of acceptance within certain academic circles. Use them only if explicitly instructed to do so, as they can be distracting to your audience and should generally be avoided.

Once again,