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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Any questions? How to use the quantifiers ‘some’ and ‘any’

English quantifiers are more complex than they look. They have different aspects of meaning which connect to the nouns that they work with in different ways. English nouns can be concrete, abstract, countable or uncountable, and quantifiers reflect these aspects of meaning and form. There are many ‘rules’ which cover the different ways that quantifiers can be used, and one of these ‘rules’ is actually quite a misconception:

The ‘rule’: Use ‘some’ with positive (affirmative) sentences, and ‘any’ in questions and negatives.

This ‘rule’ describes the quantifiers ‘some’ and ‘any’ themselves, and on first sight, this seems to hold up, as in the quick examples:

I bought some new shoes yesterday (affirmative)

I couldn’t find any shorts that I liked (negative)

Did you see any shirts that you liked? (question)

We also use ‘some’ and ‘any’ as part of pronouns such as ‘somebody’, ‘somewhere’, ‘anything’ and ‘anybody’ (and all the other indefinite ways of referring to people, places and things. The above ‘rule’ is often taught as applying to these forms too, as in:

‘I thought I heard somebody say something’ (affirmative)

‘I didn’t hear anything’ (negative)

‘Is there anybody there?’ (question)

However, a few simple examples don’t define a rule, especially in such an irregular field as English grammar, so we need to question any ‘rule’ with other commonly held forms. In fact, on closer inspection, there are many negative and question forms which contain ‘some’ forms, and equally, we can use ‘any’ in positive sentences, as in:

‘I don’t like some of these flavours’

‘Did somebody say something?’


‘I’ll tell you if I hear anything

So what is the difference between ‘some’ and ‘any’, and how can we teach this difference accurately, to give our learners the greatest range in their use of such common forms?

The difference between some and any is less about sentence grammar, and more about the attitude of the speaker towards the noun that they are quantifying. The contrast here is between how specifically or generally the speaker wants to define the noun. If the noun is indefinite or unknown (by definition, an unknown is not specific or definite, as we don’t even know who or what it is), then we tend to use ‘any’. If we are describing a specific or more definite noun, then ‘some’ is more likely.

In the first example above, ‘I don’t like some of these flavours’ is making a comment on a specific set of the flavours available, which the speaker doesn’t like. Contrast this with the more general ‘I don’t like any of these flavours’, and the general/specific contrast becomes clearer. Now imagine when these sentences would be spoken, say at an ice-cream stand, the meaning behind these forms becomes even clearer.

Other examples for ‘some’ and ‘any’ as quantifiers include a lot fo simple, functional sentences and questions that we say every day:

Would you like something to drink? (Something specific, perhaps from a selection in front of the listener)

Are you going somewhere nice on holiday? ( the speaker knows the listener is going on holiday, but doesn’t know specifically where, so asks for specification)

I’m fine with any of these curtains (I don’t have a specific opinion)

To start teaching ‘some and ‘any’ effectively, as with many different language forms, it is important to have clear concepts to frame the language examples being used.

In the following sentence pairs (again, from the above examples), think of a situation which would form the background (context) to when they might be spoken:

‘Did somebody say something?’

‘Did anybody say anything?’

‘I’ll tell you if I hear anything’

‘I’ll tell you if I hear something’

As you can see, the difference between these is quite subtle, so these examples might be more suitable for higher levels, but the same general/specific contrast in meaning holds.

Sometimes, the use of ‘some’ or ‘any’ can sound unnatural in specific questions, negatives or affirmative sentences. However, this is usually not because of the sentence structure, but because we wouldn’t use a generalised quantifier to ask a specific question, or vice versa.

So, next time you teach ‘some’ and ‘any’, be careful of generalisations about sentence structure, and check through the examples given for a range of ‘somes’ and ‘anys’ in different types of sentence to work with the general/specific contrast in the context of the sentence situations being presented.

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.

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