The English-Learning and Languages Review Ć HOMEPAGE
The truth about
some and any,
and some thoughts it prompted on meanings, grammatical categories, and academic grammars
This article was first published in English Today 105, Vol. 27, No. 1 (March 2011). It can be found online at http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=ENG
We are into the second decade of the twenty-first century, but grammarians still fail to distinguish properly between some and any (and their compounds – something/anything, etc.). This may in itself seem a small matter. But it is symptomatic of flaws in the academic study of language.
I first discussed the distinction between some and any in Gethin,1990: 87-89, and then some ten years later in much greater detail in the first version of Gethin 2010a.
The difference in meaning between some
and any is fundamental and crucial. However, this does not mean that
they can never be used as alternatives to each other, in the same way as, for
example, except (for)and apart from. We can say both
3 There are no cats here apart from mine,
4 There are no cats here except for mine.
But while we can say
5 There are twenty-six cats here apart from mine,
we do not say
6 *There are twenty-six cats here except for mine.
There is always a difference in meaning between apart from and except (for), whatever the context, as there is between almost all words. In 3 and 4, however, this difference in meaning makes no practical difference. And there is no conflict of meaning between except for and the rest of the sentence in 4. But there is in 6.
The same applies to some and any. We can say
7 Have you got any water? or
8 Have you got some water?
without any significant change in
practical meaning. But while we can say
9 Somebody’s not signed,
we do not say
10 *Anybody’s not signed,
because it is nonsense.
A fundamental mistake grammarians tend to make is to attach the meaning of the whole to the part. They may declare, for instance, that some is ‘assertive (positive)’, any ‘non-assertive (negative)’. They fail to see that it is the basic separate meanings of some or any, independent of context, that in combination with other separate meanings sometimes produce whole sentences that can be classified in this way. Or, to put it another way, ‘assertive’. and ‘non-assertive’ and all the other analyses they make in connection with some and any are simply some of the possible results, in 'complete' meanings, of the use of and combination of various separate meanings. The result is very often, for instance, that one cannot use some with a negative, simply because the basic meaning of some will not fit that particular negative. Very often, however, some not only fits a particular negative – it is what one has to use with that negative to express one's meaning, as in example 9. Grammarians also sometimes make the further basic mistake of failing to recognise, for instance, that although it may be true that any is more commonly used in negative sentences, that is only because any + negative situations are more common in life. But situations in life, however common, do not make laws of language.
There is a prime example of the confusion of the meaning of individual words with the meaning of whole sentences in Quirk et al.’s account (Quirk et al., 1985) of the definite article. I have explained their mistakes in Gethin,1990:77-87, and Gethin, 2010b. Apart from special uses like the sooner the better, the has one simple, basic, unchanging meaning. But Quirk et al. insist on distinguishing many different categories of the: immediate situation; larger situation; anaphoric reference direct; anaphoric reference indirect; cataphoric reference; etc., etc., and thereby present the student with a daunting (and misleading) burden on the memory, while failing completely to convey the essence of the. There may be complete sentences that could be classified as ‘anaphoric’, for instance, but such classification adds nothing to either knowledge or understanding. There is no such thing as anaphoric the.
The meanings of some and any
What are the meanings of some and any? It is impossible to describe properly the meaning of a word with other words. But for practical purposes I suggest, in their common uses:
Any: its essence is the idea of whatever, whichever you like to think of; it is an emphatic word, whether in the positive or the negative.
These are necessarily vague and inaccurate descriptions. Best of all, if you are a teacher, is if you can demonstrate the meanings to learners physically. With a bit of clownery and ham acting and some good examples, these descriptions can in fact work quite well. I have had much exhibitionist fun in the classroom enacting some and any.
Actually, perhaps the simplest way for non-English-speakers to learn some and any is by translation in varying contexts into their native language. This, though, is not to advocate the translation method of language-learning. Far from it. See Gethin & Gunnemark, 1996:105-06, where I give advice on using bilingual dictionaries.
Like virtually all words, some and any can be stressed or unstressed without change in their basic meaning. Some is pronounced /səm/ when unstressed, and /sʌm/ when stressed. But some is normally pronounced /sʌm/ in the phrase some of, whether stressed or unstressed.
Stress depends on the context and the meaning one wants to convey. For instance, in a sentence like
11 We’ve got some bread but not enough for three people
the position of the stress depends on the utterance (or context) to which it is a response. If this was a question such as Do we have anything to eat? the stress will be on bread, and some would be unstressed: some bread; but if the question was Have you got any bread?, the stress will be on some: some bread. Similarly:
12 “When shall I come?” “Any time would suit me fine.”
13 “Who can I ask?” “Any doctor should be able to help you.”
Both some and any, stressed or unstressed, can be used in any sort of sentence, so long as it makes sense.
Some examples of the difference in meaning between the some series and the any series, and of the interdependence of meanings
14 The doctor hasn't seen anyone. (The doctor has seen no patients whatever.)
15 The doctor hasn't seen someone. (There is a certain unspecified person the doctor has not seen, still sitting in the waiting room.)
16 He thinks macaroni grows on trees, and Star Wars is a dispute among
actors?! Does he know anything?!
(Is there nothing
whatever he knows?)
17 "Do you know something?" "No - what?" "I love you." (There is a certain thing that is true. Do you know it?)
18 I didn’t understand some of the jokes. (There were certain jokes I did not understand.)
19 I didn’t understand any of the jokes. (There were no jokes whatever that I understood.)
Note how in 18 and 19 some and any could be stressed, and jokes unstressed, or vice versa.
20 They always
welcomed any member of our family with open arms.
21 *They sometimes saw any member of our family in the distance.
21 is nonsense, although its formal grammatical analysis is exactly the same as that of 20: subject – frequency adverb – past tense transitive verb – object phrase (identical in the two sentences) – adverb phrase. The essential difference between the two sentences is simply the particular meanings of the verbs and adverb phrases used.
22 There's a thermos of coffee over there.
Anybody’s welcome to help themselves to a cup.
23 Oh hell! Somebody hasn't put the top back on the thermos!
Notice how in 22 the any compound is essential, despite the affirmative (whoever it is is welcome), and how in 23 the some compound is essential, despite the negative. 23 means "A certain person has done this dreadful thing, although I don't know who that certain person is." But somebody in 22 would mean "There is a certain person who is welcome to a cup, but I'm not going to tell you / I don’t know / who it is!", while anybody in 23 would be nonsensical.
Some failings of some academic grammars:
1 Quirk et al.’s A comprehensive grammar of the English language
Quirk et al. do, near the beginning of their account of some and any (Quirk et al., 1985: 783-84), try to differentiate between them in meaning terms. But not only are their descriptions wrong; they quickly convert reasonably precise meaning into vague general meaning. Some is said to be ‘assertive’ and any ‘non-assertive’. (‘Non-assertive’ is a very questionable term for any – a good case could be made for calling it a very assertive word.) The authors then move even further away from meaning: the choice of some or any is determined by the grammatical category of the sentence. The any series, they say, ‘appears’ in negative, interrogative, conditional, and restrictive relative clauses’.
Quirk et al. say that ‘nonassertive items appear … after words that are morphologically negative or that have negative import’. A single one of their examples under this heading should suffice to demonstrate how they seem to be ignoring the fact that some and any have totally different meanings:
24 ‘They can prevent any demonstration.’
One might want, however, to convey a very different meaning:
25 They can prevent some demonstrations, but not others.
Much earlier in their grammar (p.84) Quirk et al. write of the impossibility of a positive statement containing nonassertive forms. They give as an example
26 ‘*I have any ideas.’
Like so many grammarians, they seem to lack the imagination or the will to think of examples that invalidate their claims. Here, change the particular meaning of the verb, and one gets a perfectly sensible sentence:
27 I welcome any ideas.
There are other flaws in Quirk et al.’s account of some and any. See an extended review of these in Gethin, 2010c.
2 Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum et al.’s The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language [CGEL]
The basic approach of this massive work, with its huge number of technical terms and minute examination of sentences, is similar to that in Quirk et al., but the grammatical categorising is taken even further. The work devotes, partly or wholly, more than fifty pages to the subject of some and any and their compounds (mainly in chapters 5, by John Payne and Rodney Huddleston, and 9, by Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston).
The CGEL describes any as a non-affirmative ‘expression of existential quantification’, indicating ‘a quantity or number greater than zero’(Huddleston & Pullum et al., 2002: 358-59). This tells one nothing useful. It conveys nothing of the unique essence of any. One might as well call a or the expressions of existential quantification, since they too indicate a quantity or number greater than zero. The authors go on to maintain (on page 360 by implication, on pages 381 and 383 explicitly) that any has the same sense as some. Yet on page 359 under  they give perfect examples, apparently without noticing it, of how crucially different in meaning some and any are (cf. 18 and 19 above):
28 ‘He hadn’t eaten some of the meat.’
29 ‘He hadn’t eaten any of the meat.’
This sort of confusion is almost bound to arise when meanings are converted into grammatical categories. On page 829 the CGEL insists that ‘positively-oriented’ some is ‘inadmissible’ in the negative
30 ‘*They didn’t make some mistakes.’
but that, in contrast, in changed ‘scope’ conditions,
31 ‘I didn’t understand some of the points she was trying to make.’
is an ‘admissible’ sentence, which they paraphrase as ‘some of the points…had the property that I didn’t understand them’.
In fact 30 is in principle exactly the same as 31. The ‘scope’ relationships can be interpreted as identical in the two sentences (some mistakes had the property that they didn’t make them). It is a good example of how unusual or unnatural situations in real life can deceive analysts into thinking that the language expressing such situations is prohibited by some grammatical law. We can make 30 a bit more realistic by expanding it a little - This time they didn’t make some of their usual mistakes – or by stressing some. But the CGEL seems to have determined in advance that 30 is ‘inadmissible’ and so declares, back-to-front, that the ‘scope’ is such as to make it so. See 18 and 28, and my discussion under General principles above.
Recognising that any is clearly very often not ‘non-affirmative’, the CGEL creates (p.361) a new category, ‘free choice’ any, as in:
32 ‘Any of these computers will do.’
Of this any the authors say (p.382) ‘an arbitrary member (or subquantity) can be selected from the set (or quantity) denoted by the head and the predication property will apply to it.’
This distinction may be valid up to a point. For example, 33 is ambiguous.
33 I won’t eat any pies.
The sentence could mean I will eat no pies at all: the any is the CGEL’s ‘non-affirmative’ type. Or it could mean I will not eat just any pies, irrespective of quality: the CGEL’s ‘free choice’ type of any. (In practice the intonation of the sentence will probably vary according to the meaning intended.)
But the distinction is very fuzzy, and ultimately questionable. Just one instance from the several one could cite from the CGEL is the case of conditional sentences. These, such as (p.745)
34 ‘If anyone has a solution to this problem, please let me know.’
are supposedly part of the justification for categorising any as ‘non-affirmative’. But they can often be paraphrased to provide examples of what the CGEL would call ‘free choice’ any:
35 Anyone with a solution to this problem should kindly let me know.
See Gethin, 2010d, for further detailed discussion of this and all the other difficulties in the CGEL’s account of some and any.
The CGEL fails to convey anything of the essential meaning of any. It is much more accurate, practical, and psychologically real – in the sense that it is the way native English-speakers experience any, unless they are grammatical analysts - to regard all any’s as one and the same. They all carry the ‘whatever, whichever’ idea.
The CGEL, instead, tries to fit any into its huge, elaborate system of grammatical categories. It claims that ‘non-affirmative’ contexts ‘admit’ ‘negatively-oriented polarity-sensitive items (NPIs)’, of which the ‘non-affirmative’ any series of words, but not ‘free choice’ any’s (pp.823,826), are an example; while ‘affirmative’ contexts ‘exclude NPIs’ (pp.822-38). All this rigid categorising, however, leads to difficulties, and sometimes to what seem to be rather desperate attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions. For instance (p.836) in
36 ‘It would be foolish to take any unnecessary risks.’
there is an ‘NPI’ in what appears to be an affirmative context. Not so, says the CGEL (p.835). Foolish is one of a number of ‘covertly negative lexical items with clausal or clause-like complements’, one of a ‘large array of lexical items expressing unfavourable evaluations’.
I don’t think languages work like that: grammatical categories admitting or excluding other grammatical categories. We use any in 36, not because foolish is covertly negative, but simply because any is the word we have to use in this context if that is the meaning we intend. What else could we say if that is what we want to say? We could use some, or many – but they would give the sentence quite different meanings. Similarly, we do not say things like I have any books. That is not because the any is a ‘non-affirmative quantifier’, but because it is nonsense, while I read any books makes sense. Fundamentally, creating language is not a negative process of ‘admitting’, or ‘excluding’ or ‘sanctioning’ categories, but a positive one of combining different meanings to make the sense one wants. Actually, at this point in the CGEL the authors are not very far from saying precisely this; but their whole approach prevents them admitting any such thing.
The other key distinction the CGEL makes is between the ‘proportional’ and ‘non-proportional’ use of both some and any. The authors say that with ‘proportional’ use ‘we are concerned with quantity relative to some larger set’ (p.381); but, they say, in a sentence like
37 ‘There are some letters for you.’
some is non-proportional.
On pages 364-65, though, they offer the sentence
38 ‘Some people don’t know how to say ‘No’.’
as an example of the ‘proportional’ use of some, because, they say, one is ‘talking about people in general, but people in general constitute a set’. But (in its most common use) some is practically always ‘proportional’, always means a ‘proportion’, a portion, part of a larger set. If I say I have some letters, or some cheese, I am saying that I have a portion of a larger set.
The CGEL compounds the confusion by linking the analysis of some and any to the use of stress. ‘Proportional’ some, the authors say (p.381), ‘is stressed, and not reducible to /səm/’, as in
39 ‘Some people left early.’
But in talk about human affairs, the idea of people is normally implicit. So if, say, one is talking about a party or a meeting, one normally has no reason to stress people. One wants to stress the some idea. If, though, one changes the topic, for example to ladies or officials, one switches the stress:
40 Some /səm/ ladies/officials left early.
See also sentence 11 above.
Their confusion over stress continues. They not only say (p.383) that ‘non-affirmative’ any ‘is usually unstressed’, while ‘free choice’ any ‘is always stressed’; the examples of any that they give on page 382 as unstressed are in fact stressed, and the ones they give as stressed are in fact unstressed!
3 Ronald Carter and
There are good things here. One is the attention paid to spoken English. Many of the examples are taken from the huge Cambridge International Corpus of real texts taken from everyday written and spoken English. The authors show wisdom, though, in emphasizing that ‘the pedagogic process should be informed by the corpus, not driven or controlled by it.’ (Carter & McCarthy, 2006:12) Another excellent feature is the opening section of 141 pages which gives detailed explanations of 81 words known to cause difficulties for learners of English.
Sadly, though, the authors have apparently succumbed, at least partly, to the disease that seems to infect most who enter the halls of academic linguistics. This is the Chomskyan illusion of the primacy of syntax. Large parts of both the book’s organization and its explanations are on the basis of grammatical categorisation. For instance (p.481), under ‘Compound nouns’,
The typical … stress pattern is with stress on the first item (e.g. screwdriver, happy hour), which helps to distinguish noun compounds from noun modifier + head structures, where stress is on the noun head (e.g. university degree, government report).
This back-to-front approach gives the impression that the
CGE’s task is to discover grammatical categories, rather than show students how
to use pieces of language - in this case, where to put the stress. The CGE’s
approach imitates that of Chomsky and
There are other things in the CGE that suggest that there are some basic principles of language that the authors are unaware of. For instance, they say (p.7) that computer-assisted research has shown the patterned relationship between vocabulary and grammar, such as ‘the pattern of about twenty verbs in English …followed by the preposition by and an –ing clause.’ But hundreds, indeed an indefinite number, of English verbs can be followed by by+-ing. The correct insight into the relationship between vocabulary and grammar is gained, not by registering with computers what a sample of people have said, but by recognising what people can say. See Gethin, 2010f, and Gethin & Gunnemark, 1996: 298-300.
Where some and any are concerned the CGE is as confused as the CGEL. If students of English are ever told to study all three of the works I review here, they will surely be bewildered to find that each one makes distinctions between some and any that are different from the other two; and indeed that in the end none of them really distinguish properly between the meanings of the two words at all.
The CGE in effect tells us that it is an inexplicable, arbitrary system of stress which determines the use of both words. I have explained the error of this relationship of stress with some and any above. See my argument around sentences 11, 39 and 40. (The CGE in fact adds a further error of its own. See Gethin, 2010g, for a detailed account of all the CGE’s mistakes concerning some and any.)
The CGE ends up making the same old basic mistakes (pp.366-67):
The use of the weak forms of some and any depends on whether the clause is declarative or interrogative, and whether it is affirmative or negative: …………………
In declarative clauses, some occurs with affirmatives but does not occur with negatives. Any occurs with negatives but does not usually occur with affirmatives: ……….
But as we have seen:
(a) some and compounds are often used in negative declarative clauses, as in examples 9, 15, 18, 23, 28, 30, 31, 38;
(b) any and compounds are often used in affirmative declarative clauses, as in examples 12, 13, 20, 22, 32, 35, 36; while the statement that any does not usually occur with affirmatives would be useless even if it was true. (The CGE’s specifying of weak forms is irrelevant. A variety of stress patterns is possible in the sentences listed.)
Unfortunately, even if the information in Quirk et al. and the CGEL was unfailingly correct, and did not so frequently illustrate false principles, studying these grammars would certainly not be the way to learn English. One learns a foreign language by observing it in use. One does not learn the true essence of words through definition and exhaustive analysis. It is hard to see what purpose these huge works serve. They add nothing to understanding or real knowledge.
The CGE could be helpful for students of English. Its greatest usefulness would be as a reference work. However, this is much reduced by the poor index – try looking up, for instance, the/definite article, -ing/gerund, or stress. Unfortunately the search function on the CD-ROM accompanying the book is in some ways even weaker as a reference tool than the printed index.
There is not just the problem that grammarians frequently get the facts wrong. There is the much more serious and fundamental problem that they often give the wrong impression of how language works. The Chomskyan illusion persists. Grammarians sometimes give the impression that meaning can be (or is always?) irrelevant, that the way words are used is determined by grammatical categories. But as Michael Bulley says (2007: 56), grammar is not discovered; it is made up.
Bulley, M. 2007. ‘No such things as nouns.’ English Today, 23(1), 56-60.
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