The Grammarphobia Blog

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Q: While editing a friend’s blog, I happened upon two words that I feel do not belong in professional writing: “nobody” and “anybody.” I consider them colloquial, and believe “no one” and “anyone” should be used instead. Is this pet peeve of mine justified?

A: The “body” pronouns (“nobody,” “anybody,” “somebody,” “everybody”) are not colloquial. They’re standard English, and they’re every bit as legitimate as the “one” versions (“no one,” “anyone,” “someone,” “everyone”).

Centuries ago, the word “body” was often used to mean “person.” Think of the Robert Burns poem: “Gin a body meet a body / Comin thro’ the rye, / Gin a body kiss a body, / Need a body cry?”

When the “body” pronouns entered English, most of them around the 14th century, they were written as two words, and over time became single words.

In the case of “nobody,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was “frequently written as two words from the 14th to the 18th centuries, and with hyphen in the 17th and 18th.”

Is one set of pronouns better for formal writing than the other?

Among the many usage guides we checked, only Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) sees any difference: “No one is somewhat more formal and literary than nobody.” But Garner’s doesn’t say why, or explain how that judgment was arrived at.

As for the other sets of words (“somebody” vs. “someone” and so on), Garners’  finds them interchangeable and equally acceptable. The usage guide says euphony – the agreeableness of sound  – should govern the choice.

We checked several other references about this “one/body” business, but they mention only one pair of these pronouns: “someone/somebody.”

The Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage says there’s no difference between them: “Someone is not necessarily a more polished choice than somebody; use whichever word makes the most effective, rhythmically satisfying sentence.”

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in its entry for “somebody” and “someone,” says both “have been in constant parallel use since the beginning of the 14c.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the two are “equally standard; use whichever one you think sounds better in a given context.”

Our conclusion is that all the “body” pronouns, including “nobody” and “anybody,” are good  for all occasions. But if you think “no one” and “anyone” sound smoother on occasion, then let your ear be your guide.

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