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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Some and any… Revisiting Quantifiers and Countability

Trinity CertTESOL Some and any Language Point

There is a 'grammar rule’ about quantifiers which is often taught to learners at lower levels of study. You may recognise it: Use ‘some’ in positive sentences, and ‘any’ in questions and negatives. This ‘rule’ is also expanded to other forms containing ‘some’ and ‘any’: something, somewhere, anybody, etc. 

As is often the case, however, this ‘rule’ is misleading. There are a lot of common questions which use ‘some’, as in:

‘Would you like something to drink?’

‘Have you had some cake?’

‘Is he somebody famous?’

Similarly, we can make positive statements with ‘any’:

‘Anybody can speak another language if they study.’

‘I’ll watch anything with The Rock in it.’

‘You can ask any questions that you may have at the end of the presentation.’

In fact, the pattern which affects the ‘some/any’ choice is not connected to grammar, but to meaning, and the way that a speaker sees the thing being quantified with some or any.

General vs. Specific - a meaningful choice

The choice to use some/any to quantify a noun comes from whether the speaker sees that noun in a general or specific way. Looking at the examples above, the drinks, cake and famous person are all being communicated specifically (there are a specific set of drinks or one specific cake on offer, and if a person is famous, they are ‘somebody’ - a specific person who is well-known for a specific reason. 

By contrast the ‘any’ examples above are more generalised; the ability to speak another language is general to all people - you don’t have to have a specific set of skills to do this; the speaker’s love of The Rock as an actor extends to all of his films in general - it doesn’t matter which film, the speaker will watch it, and the presenter is inviting questions on their presentation content in general, which is why we use the phrase ‘any questions?’ At that point in a presentation.

By reframing the some/any choice as one of specificity/generality, we can help learners to apply these forms in a much more authentic way.

So where does the some/any ‘rule’ come from?

Thinking from a ‘general/specific’ point of view, it is true that when we use negatives, we are commonly using them in a general way. If there aren’t any sheep in a field, for example, we don’t care which sheep are not there, we are describing the general absence of sheep, so ‘not any’ is appropriate.

Similarly, questions are often general in meaning, simply because questions are asked if the speaker doesn’t know something. If we don’t know something at all, we can’t be specific about it, so we commonly (but not always) use the general ‘any’, for example:

‘Have you found anywhere good to eat around here?’ (Asking about cafes and restaurants in general)

‘Do you know anyone who can speak Italian?’ (It doesn’t matter who they are, just whether they can speak Italian)

‘Are you going anywhere over New Year?’ (I don’t know if you have plans, so you could be going anywhere, or not)

Working with examples for students

A good way of introducing this general/specific concept with learners is to get them thinking about pairs of sentences containing ‘some’ and ‘any’, and finding a meaningful difference between them. Discussing the general or specific focus of the way that the speaker is communicating the noun idea in each case.

For example, try the following exercise yourself. What is the meaning difference between the following sentence pairs?

I like any spicy dishes.

I don’t like some spicy dishes.

Can you take any days off in next week?

Can you take some days off next week?

Ask students to think about the situations that these questions might be asked in - why would the speaker ask or say these things in this way? Is there a specific reason for asking? Is the speaker referring to specific items, or these things in general? A few guided questions, along with some well-selected example sentences, can get students thinking about aspects of context and meaning which affect the some/any choice in the language being used.



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