Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns and determiners

The core indefinite pronouns and determiners are quantitative in meaning, indicating number or amount. This includes universal meaning (everybody, everything, etc) as well as partitive (some, several, etc).

The system in English is sensitive to such factors as the countability of the noun that is determined or replaced, as well as whether a clause is assertive (roughly, positive declarative) or non-assertive (roughly, negative declarative or interrogative).

We discuss pronouns beginning in some and any here, and other quantifying pronouns under the heading Quantifiers.

some vs any

The pronouns/determiners some and any and the compound pronouns somebody, someone, something, anyone, and anything are the core members of the class of indefinite pronouns. The following examples illustrate some of their uses:

(1) I saw somebody/someone/something outside my window.

(2) Did you see anybody/anyone/anything outside your window?

(3) I didn’t see anybody/anyone/anything outside my window.

As these examples show,  English sometimes uses the some-forms and sometimes the any-forms. Roughly, the some-forms are used in positive statements, whereas the any-forms are used in questions and negatives. We discuss this more thoroughly immediately below.

Assertive and non-assertive contexts

The patterning in the examples above reflects a distinction between so called assertive and non-assertive contexts. The former type of context is one where the truth of a positive statement is asserted, whereas the latter is one where the truth of the positive statement is either denied (negatives) or unknown (interrogatives).

Beside negative declaratives and interrogatives, non-assertive contexts include e.g. comparative clauses, conditional clauses and complement clauses of verbs which entail or presuppose the negation of the complement clause.

(4) He is richer than anyone I know.

(5) If you need any help let me know.

(6) Bill’s lawyer failed to do anything that could have helped him.

(7) My client denies having done anything wrong.

(8) I doubt that there is any truth to this.

It should be noted that the some- and any-words do not behave exactly the same in all non-assertive contexts. For example, some-words can sometimes be used in interrogative clauses, whereas they are more restricted in negative declaratives.

Some and any in non-assertive contexts

The main rule in English is that the some-words are used in assertive contexts and any-words are used in non-assertive contexts.

(9) There is still some wine left.

(10) Is there any wine left?

(11)There isn’t any wine left.

(12) If you have any problems, please let me know.

However, in some non-assertive contexts, the some-words can be used, but with additional interpretations. At a very general level, the some-words in non-assertive contexts give rise to existential presuppositions.

(13) Is there some wine left?

(14) If you have some questions, please let me know.

In these examples, some signals that the speaker assumes that there is wine left and that there are questions.

In yes/no interrogatives the existential presupposition is typically equivalent to the speaker expecting a positive answer. In contexts where the speaker is making an offer by using an interrogative, the some-words are felt to be more polite than the any-words.

(15a) Did anyone tell you about the meeting tomorrow?

(15b) Did someone tell you about the meeting tomorrow?

(16a) Can I get you anything?

(16b) Can I get you something?

The politeness effect in the last example arises from the general tendency for an offer to be more polite the easier it is for the addressee to accept it. The positive bias in these types of questions therefore makes an acceptance of the offer easier.

In negative declaratives, some-words are used when the negation does not affect the pronoun.

(17a) I didn’t go to some of the chemistry lectures.

(17b) I didn’t go to any of the chemistry lectures.

In the first example, the pronoun is unaffected by the negation, which results in the interpretation ‘there were some chemistry lectures that I didn’t go to’ (implying there were others that I did go to). Conversely, in the second example, the existence of grammar lectures that the speaker went to is denied.

Not any vs not a
In non-assertive contexts, the indefinite article is most often used as a determiner instead of any.

(18) His paper didn’t have a proper conclusion.

A further alternative is to use the negative determiner no (further discussed in the next section).

(19) His paper had no proper conclusion.

No vs not+any/a

These two forms of negation are semantically equivalent and can often be used interchangeably.

(20) We don’t have any money.

(21) We have no money.

Similarly not + a and no are often equivalent in meaning. (Note that not a can only be used with countable nouns)

(22) She didn’t have a clue.

(23) She had no clue.

In some cases, only one of these alternatives is possible. For example, the any-words cannot be placed initially if they are affected by the negation. The negative determiner no is often used in such cases.

(24a) *Any other options were not considered

(24b) No other options were considered.

Moreover, in some cases there is a contrast in meaning between not + a and no, such that the latter expresses a value judgement.

(25a) Bill is not a photographer, but he takes great pictures.

(25b) Bill is no photographer.

(26a) Mary is not a friend of mine.

(26b) Mary is no friend of mine.

Whereas the first example just expresses that Bill is not a professional photographer, the second one implies that Bill is a poor photographer.

Similarly, in the second pair, there is a difference between simply denying that Mary is the speaker's friend (she may be a total stranger) in the first example, and implying that the speaker is on unfriendly terms with Mary in the second. 

A Swedish perspective: någon, något, några (click to expand/contract)

The English some- and any-words often correspond to Swedish någon, något, några, and någonting:

(1) I saw somebody/someone/something outside my window (någon/någonting)

(2) Did you see anybody/anyone/anything outside your window? (någon/någonting)

(3) I didn’t see anybody/anyone/anything outside my window.(någon/någonting)

Whereas Swedish uses the same form in positive declaratives, interrogatives and negative declaratives, English uses the some-forms in the first case, but the any-forms in the latter two. Thus, it is important for Swedes to understand the distinction between assertive and non-assertive contexts discussed in the main section on indefinite pronouns.

Moreover, Swedish can freely place indefinite pronouns in initial position (4a), whereas this is generally not possible in English (4c):

(4a) Någon annan lösning har jag svårt att see.

(4b) I cannot see any other solution.

(4c) *Any other solution I cannot see.


Free-choice any-words
Any-words can be used in both assertive and non-assertive contexts in the sense ‘anyone, anything, etc. at all’. In this so called ‘free-choice’ use, the any-words are insensitive to whether they occur in declaratives, interrogatives, conditional clauses, etc.

(27) Anyone can learn how to sing.

(28) Can anyone learn how to sing?

(29) Anyone can’t learn how to sing.

In many cases there are alternatives; everyone instead of anyone, for example. In negated clauses, especially, the first of the following to example would be more common than the second:

(30a) Not (just) anyone can learn how to sing.

(30b) Not everyone can learn how to sing.