The English-Learning and Languages Review Ć HOMEPAGE
some and any
(and their compounds)
At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century the field of language studies is still dominated by the obsession with syntax. This obsession continues to lead to much error in linguistic analysis. Where English is concerned, there is a good example in the failure of recognised authorities to provide a correct explanation of how some and any are used. I have been unable to find any book on the English-teaching market which does not repeat the old errors.
The distinction between some and any is purely one of meaning. It has nothing to do with grammatical forms or any sort of grammatical 'rule'. As with the use of any other vocabulary, if two or more meanings in a sentence are incompatible, we say it's 'wrong'. Just as we don't say
1 *I will go yesterday
we don't say
2 *There are any books over there.
The principle is exactly the same in the two cases. However, the conflict of meanings between will and yesterday is more obvious than it is between there are and any books. So where the use of some and any is concerned, grammarians have failed to see that meaning alone is involved. Instead they have tied themselves and the rest of us up in knots searching for grammatical and rule-bound explanations.
In fact, contrary to what many grammarians seem to believe, some and any have completely different meanings. The difference is unambiguous and crucial. This does not mean, though, 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 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 mine.
There is no conflict of meaning between except and the rest of the sentence in 4, but there is in 6. It is important to understand that there is always a difference in meaning between apart from and except, whatever the context. But in sentences 3 and 4 it makes no practical difference, though it may make a slight difference in feeling.
This principle applies to all words and phrases. All words and phrases have their unique meaning, different from that of all other words and phrases. In some contexts these differences have practical importance. In some contexts they do not. Some and any are an excellent example of this. We can say
7 Have you got some water?
8 Have you got any water?
There is no practical difference in meaning between the two sentences. [note 1] But there is clearly a great deal of difference in meaning between
9 I don’t like some operas [there are certain operas I don’t like]
10 I don’t like any operas. [there are no operas I like]
And finally, an example of a pair of sentences where the utterly different meaning of the two words makes one sentence perfectly normal and the other ‘unacceptable’. We can say
11 Somebody's not signed
12 *Anybody's not signed
is nonsense. The meaning of anybody is incompatible with the meaning of (ha)s not signed (but compatible with can sign).
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 the following:
Any: its essence is the idea of whatever, whichever you like to think of; it is an emphatic word, whether in positive or negative clauses.
Some is essentially limited. Some is a certain unspecified amount of, a certain unspecified portion or proportion of, a certain unspecified number of, an unspecified thing or person. One could perhaps also say that some, something, somebody etc. are in a sense the opposite of no (adjective), nothing, nobody etc.
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 how to use 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. The Art and Science of Learning Languages, pp.105-06, where I give advice on how to use bilingual dictionaries.
Like practically 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 the sentence
13 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:
We’ve got some /səm/ bread, but not enough for three people.
But if the question was
Have you got any bread?
the stress will be on some:
We’ve got some /sʌm/ bread, but not enough for three people.
14 “Next we’ll need some sugar.” “I don’t think we need any sugar.” “No, we’ll need some sugar – not much, but some.”
15 “When shall I come?” “Any time will suit me fine.”
16 “Who can I ask for advice?” “Any doctor should be able to help you.”
17 Anybody could have told you that.
18 How like a man! Any woman would have understood your feelings immediately.
(In all the examples that follow in this article, some and any, and their compounds, are only stressed if they appear in bold; otherwise they are unstressed.)
Grammarians not only tend to make the fundamental mistake of converting meanings into grammatical categories, in the belief that these categories, rather than meanings, are the key to understanding how languages work. They often confuse the meaning of the part with the meaning of the whole. They may declare, for instance, that some is ‘affirmative’, and any ‘non-affirmative’. They fail to see that it is the combination of the basic separate meanings of some or any with other separate meanings which produces, sometimes, whole sentences that can be classified in this way. Or, to put it another way, ‘affirmative’ and ‘non-affirmative’ 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. We have already seen an example of this in sentence 11. But it is quite irrelevant and without interest (and very confusing) to classify those resulting meanings.
This error is linked to another common error. This is the failure to recognise that situations in life do not make laws of language. For example, it may be true that any is more commonly used in negative sentences. But if so, that is only because any + negative situations are more common in life. [note 2]
Grammarians also tend – at least in the case of some and any - to select examples that appear to confirm their analyses, and fail to imagine any of the many that invalidate them. They say, for instance, that *I don’t have some questions, and *I ate any of the pies, and *I have any ideas are unacceptable sentences; they seem unable to think of grammatically similar examples, such as I don’t like some modern operas, or I could have eaten any of the pies, or I welcome any ideas, which are perfectly acceptable sentences.
Both some and any (and their compounds), stressed or unstressed, can be used in any sort of sentence, so long as it makes sense.
19 I enjoy some operas. [I enjoy certain operas, but not others.]
20 I enjoy any opera. [I enjoy whichever opera I go to.]
21 I don’t like some operas. [I like operas, but there are certain operas that I don’t like.]
22 I don’t like any operas. [There are no operas that I like.]
23 Do you like some operas? [Do you like at least certain operas, even if you don’t like all operas?]
24 Do you like any operas? [Are there no operas at all that you like, even if you don’t normally like operas?]
25 I’m prepared to go to some operas, but not many. [I’m prepared to go to a certain limited number of operas.]
26 I’m prepared to go to any reasonably well-sung opera. [I’m prepared to go to whichever opera you like to think of, so long as it’s well sung.]
27 Some operas can be dreadfully boring. [A certain limited number of operas can be dreadfully boring, but not all.]
28 Any opera is a dreadfully boring experience for me. [Whichever opera you like to think of is a dreadfully boring experience for me.]
29 The doctor hasn’t seen someone. [The doctor has probably seen some patients, but there is a certain person she/he has not seen, perhaps still sitting forlornly in the waiting room.]
30 The doctor hasn’t seen anyone. [The doctor has seen no patients at all.]
[After listening to a talk in a foreign language]
31 I didn't understand some of the jokes. [There were jokes I understood, but also certain other jokes I did not understand.
32 I didn't understand any of the jokes. [There were absolutely no jokes whatever that I understood.]
33 I didn’t understand some of the jokes. [I understood almost everything, except for a certain number of the jokes.]
34 I didn’t understand any of the jokes. [I understood almost everything except for the jokes. I understood none of those.]
35 Don’t you like some operas? [Aren’t there a certain limited number of operas you like, even if you don’t like most operas?]
36 Don’t you like any operas? [Are there no operas at all that you like, even if you don’t normally like them?]
37 Don’t you like some operas? [In contrast to the things you don’t like, aren’t there a certain limited number of operas you like?]
38 Don’t you like any operas? [In contrast to the things you don’t like, are there no operas that you like?]
39 I’ve never been to the theatre, but I’ve been to some operas. [In contrast to the theatre, I’ve been to a certain number of operas.]
40 I‘m not very keen on the theatre, but I’d go to any opera. [In contrast to the theatre, I’d go to no matter which opera.]
41 Some operas will be staged in the city next season. [There will be a certain number of operas staged in the city next season.]
42 Any operas will be paid for by the city. [If there are operas, whichever they are, they will be paid for by the city.]
43 When you get there, somebody will tell you what to do. [When you get there, there is bound to be at least one person who can tell you what to do.] Alternatively, the somebody might be unstressed.
44 When you get there, somebody will tell you what to do.
This would suggest that it has been specially arranged that a certain unnamed person will tell you what to do.
45 When you get there, anybody will tell you what to do. [A person there, whoever you ask and whoever they are, and it doesn't matter who they are, will tell you what to do – indeed, every person there will be able to tell you.]
46 "What's the matter?" "They didn't have some CD’s they'd promised to get me." [They failed to obtain a particular batch of CD’s they’d promised me.]
47 I'm fed up with them. They never have any CD’s they promise me. [They promise to obtain CD’s for me, but they never do – they have not obtained a single one for me.]
48 You think macaroni grows on trees, and Star Wars is a dispute among actors?! Do you know anything?! (Is there nothing at all you know?)
49 "Do you know something?" "No - what?" "I love you." [There is a certain thing that is true. Do you know it?] (I suspect lovers who frequently asked each other if they knew anything might not remain lovers for long.)
50 We were prepared for some emergencies, but only minor ones. [We were prepared for only a certain limited sort of emergencies.]
51 We were well organised, and always prepared for any emergencies. [We were always prepared for no matter what emergencies.]
52 The pears are all ripe, but some apples aren’t ready yet.
53 I haven’t got all of the bird series stamps, and I haven’t got some of the insect ones either.
[At a fairground]
54 Some children are not being allowed in. Please see to it that they can get in.
55 Some children are still not being allowed in.
inspectors haven’t checked some of the farms
57 Some farms in
58 “What’s Bill getting so hysterical about?” “Oh, he can’t do something to his satisfaction – some trivial thing, I can’t remember now what – and you know how he always insists on everything being perfect.”
59 You have to press hard to have any effect.
60 The military government has consistently smashed any resistance.
61 Anyone with any sense would have stayed at home in weather like this.
62 I don’t need money, but I’d appreciate any advice.
63 I could have eaten any vegetables, but I couldn’t have eaten any meat.
64 “Is there anything you can’t eat?” “No, I can eat anything.”
65 Any number of things could happen.
66 They weren’t even able to prevent some quite small local demonstrations, so I think they’ll be powerless against anything really determined in the capital.
67 Take anything you like.
68 Take something you like.
The distinction in meaning in this pair is a bit more subtle than in the examples above. 67 means you can take whatever you like, and by many would be interpreted in some situations to mean an invitation to take everything if you want to. Something in 68, on the other hand, not only implies that you should take one particular thing but also changes slightly the meaning of like from the sense of wish in 67 to the sense that attracts you. This pair of sentences is thus also an illustration of the fundamental principle that pieces of language are often interdependent. That is, specific meanings are dependent on other specific meanings. See how this principle is clearly at work in the next group of examples.
69 Perhaps I'm imagining things, but didn't I see some foxes in your
70*Perhaps I'm imagining things, but didn't I see any foxes in your garden yesterday?
70 is nonsensical, because the speaker, by using the negative question with I is effectively saying that he thinks, is sure even, that he saw a particular group of foxes on a particular occasion, so the idea of any at all, it doesn't matter which, doesn't fit the rest of the sentence. The speaker wants to say "I'm practically certain I saw some", not "*I'm practically certain I saw any". But change I to you and the situation changes completely: the negative question changes its implication, and a meaning (in this case any) that was impossible in a sentence that was almost, but not quite, identical, becomes possible.
71 Didn’t you see any foxes in the garden yesterday?
And the answer might be, for instance,
72 No, I didn’t, or Yes, I did actually.
Yet again, if any is changed to some,
73 Didn’t you see some foxes in the garden yesterday?
it is implied that the speaker thinks you did see some foxes in the garden yesterday. Thus, not only does a change of one specific piece of language often necessitate the change of another specific piece; sometimes the change of one specific meaning (here any to some) may change the meaning of a piece of language that remains (didn’t…see). (See also 67 and 68 above.)
74 There's a thermos of coffee over there. Anybody
is welcome to help themselves to a cup.
75 Oh hell! Somebody hasn't put the top back on the thermos!
Notice how in 74 the any form is essential, despite the affirmative (it doesn't matter who it is, whoever it is is welcome), and how in 75 the some form is essential, despite the negative! Somebody here means "A certain person has done this dreadful thing, although I don't know who that certain person is." But somebody in 74 would mean "There is a certain person who is welcome to a cup, but I'm not going to tell you who it is!", while anybody in 75 would be totally nonsensical. (One can have particular fun with a theatrical demonstration of this pair of examples.)
76 They always welcomed any member of our family with open arms.
77* They sometimes saw any member of our family in the distance.
77 is nonsense, although its formal grammatical analysis is exactly the same as that of 76: subject – time adverb – transitive verb – object – adverb phrase. The essential difference between the two sentences is simply the meanings of the verbs used. But if we use see in the sense of receive or listen to, we can use it perfectly normally with any and the same object, as we can see in 78.
78 The president was always willing to see any member of our family.
79 Surely some of the fruit is still fresh?
80*Surely any of the fruit is still fresh?
81 Surely any of the fruit would be better for dessert than that stodgy cake?
What I have argued above contradicts most of the analysis of some and any in some large academic grammars. I have examined in detail the accounts of the two words and their compounds in the grammars by Quirk et al., Huddleston & Pullum et al., and Carter & McCarthy. See www.lingua.org.uk/saquirk.htm, www.lingua.org.uk/sahuddle.htm, and www.lingua.org.uk/sacart.htm.
There is a special use of some, sometimes described as a ‘vague’ use. I give an account of this use at www.lingua.org.uk/sacart.htm, under the heading Basic muddles about stress
(a) If you’ve got something on your mind, please tell me.
(b) If you’ve got anything on your mind, please tell me.
It is important, though, to recognise once again that this does not mean that some and any do not each keep their unique meanings in these two sentences. We can reinforce (b) by adding at all to anything:
(c) If you’ve got anything at all on your mind, please tell me.
But we cannot do that with something:
(d) *If you’ve got something at all on your mind, please tell me.
This is because at all fits together with any very well; it confirms, complements it. At all is an extreme phrase, a 100% sort of phrase, and this is just what any is too. Just like nothing, for instance. So the answer to (c) might be:
(e) I’ve got nothing at all on my mind.
However, some(thing) is a completely different sort of word: limited, particular, a certain thing. So we do not use it with phrases like at all.
Note 2 An unusually clear example of this mistake can be found in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (see www.lingua.org.uk/sahuddle.htm). The sentence
*Some sulphuric acid is a dangerous substance
is marked in the grammar (as shown by the asterisk) as an unacceptable sentence. However, it is not the English that is incorrect, but the chemistry! The sentence is linguistically perfect. But presumably all, not just some, sulphuric acid is dangerous. In other words, this is a statement in impeccable English that is untrue in life.
1 June 2010
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