some/any distinction

Carrying over from transformational grammar teaching, the some/any distinction has generally attained the status of a basic structural ‘rule’ of English within foreign language teaching:

  • positive = some (There are some books);
  • negative = any (There aren’t any books);
  • question = any (Are there any books).

Open any elementary textbook and this is presented unproblematically within the first several units. However, as Lakoff pointed out as long ago as 1969 in an article entitled “Some reasons why there can’t be any some-any rule”, this is not, in fact, true. The problem is that the rule assumes that the distinction between some-any derives from “syntactic conditions” whereas in actual fact “semantic notions – such as presupposition, speaker’s and hearer’s beliefs about the world, and previous discourse – must be taken into account”.
This implies then that both options, some/any, are possible depending upon the speaker’s intention. Also, as Lock (p.46) also points out, the zero option is also possible. This leaves us with:

  • Are there any books (implying I think there are not?)
  • Are there some books (implying I think there are?)
  • Are there 0 books (compared to other items?)

The question, of course, is how to teach this.

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