Assertive Pro-forms

An assertive pro-form is a type of word that stands in for another word, phrase, clause, or sentence where the truth of a positive statement is asserted.

Assertive Pro-forms in English Grammar

What Are Assertive Pro-forms?

An assertive pro-form (also called positive polarity item) is a type of function word or expression that stands in for (expresses the same content as) another word, phrase, clause, or sentence where the truth of a positive statement is asserted (or affirmed).

Assertive pro-forms have factual meanings and typically are related to affirmative (positive) declarative sentences.

When Do We Use Assertive Context?

If we believe what we are saying is true, factual, existing, etc., then we will say them with the help of an assertive pro-form.

Assertive Words

Because of their meaning, some determiners, pronouns, and adverbs are usually used in positive contexts. Let's have a look:

Determiner Pronoun Adverb
some somebody (person) somewhere (place)
someone (person) sometime (time)
something (thing) somehow (manner)
somewhat (degree)

Tip!

There are some uncommon assertive words that are seldom used. Here is the list:

  • somewhence (adverb of source)
  • somewhither (adverb of purpose)
  • somewhen (adverb of time)
  • somewhy (adverb of reason)

Assertive Words in Statements

When we use assertive words in a statement, we refer to an entity that we know exists. But for some reason, we do not want want to mention who or what or we do not know. Let's compare these sentences:

✓ Sally met somebody.

By using 'somebody' we mean that we know for a fact that Sally met a person, because the sentence is in past tense. So we are sure it happened. That's why we used assertive forms.

✗ Sally met anybody.

But this sentence doesn't sound right. Because we know the past tense means the event happened and we are assertive Sally met someone. Therefore using a non-assertive words is wrong.

Take a look at another set of examples:

✓ He went out with somebody last night.

✗ He went out with anybody last night.

Assertive Words in Questions

First of all, note that the normal way (aka the unmarked way) of asking the question about the identity of a thing or person is by using non-assertive words. Because we are genuinely asking about the existence of a thing or person that we do not know exists.

Why would anyone want to do that?

Have you heard anything about their new album?

Tip!

However, it is possible to use assertive words in questions that are not genuine questions. Either because we know the answer in our mind or we are simply offering or suggesting something. Let's see some examples:

When we use assertive words in questions, the existence of the thing/person we are asking about is asserted.

Does anyone want a drink?

here, we do not have anybody in our mind. We are genuinely asking a question.

Does someone want a drink?

Here, the speaker assumes and is positive that at least one person will need a drink and know that person exists. This is the unusual way of asking questions.

Let's see another set of examples:

Is anyone home?

Here, we are genuinely asking a question. We have no clue what the answer would be.

Is someone home?

Here, we have a presupposition that someone might answer us.

Assertive Words in Negative Sentences

'Some-series words' are generally not used in a negative sentence. In negative sentence, 'some-series words ' are used when the negation does not affect the pronoun.

Don't do anything until we get there.

Tip!

Typically, negative sentences usually take non-assertive forms but that is not always the case. But note that there is a distinct difference in meaning between using assertive and non-assertive words:

Assertive words that are used in negative sentences often imply an identifiable thing or person. Whereas the non-assertive words imply an absence of a thing or person.

✗ I haven't spoken to someone all day.

✓ I haven't spoken to anyone all day.

Sometimes, using an assertive word in a negative sentence means the speaker is being sarcastic or is implying something that they do not want to express openly.

Somebody didn't pay their share tonight.

Here, the speaker clearly knows who did not share their pay but doesn't want to say who. That's why the speaker is using an assertive word.

Assertive Words in Conditionals

Conditional clauses naturally express doubt. So it is normal, that in conditional sentences, non-assertive words are used. Except when we want to break this norm and make a marked clause.

If you're tired, sit anywhere you like.

If you're tired, sit somewhere you like.

When we use assertive forms in conditional sentences, we actually do not mean to form a condition. We just state it to show surprise and to imply that we already know the outcome. For example:

If you need something, please ask me.

Here, the speaker is sure that the audience needs something and is not conditional at all.

Assertive Words with Modals

When using assertive words with modals, we are implying that we have a particular identity or entity in our minds. We have some clues. With modals of possibility, both assertive and non-assertive words work, with s slight difference in meaning:

You can all in love with anybody.

Here, the possibilities are endless. That 'anybody' can mean so many things. The speaker doesn't have a pattern or entity in their mind.

You can all in love with somebody.

But here, the speaker says that you can become that particular idea that you have in mind. They know what that 'somebody' is.

But with modals of prediction, we can only use assertive words, because we are foreseeing a future and in that future, we are assuming that an event will take place.

Someone will win tonight.

Anyone will win tonight.

Warning

Some verbs naturally imply non-assertive use. Therefore, they need a non-assertive pronoun/determiner.

I doubt if it'll make any difference.

(Doubt is a verb that needs non-assertive words.)

We expect some flooding after all this rain.

(expect is a verb that needs assertive words.)

Somewhat vs. At All

'Somewhat' is used only in affirmative sentences and cannot be used in negative sentences. On the other hand, 'at all' is used only in negative sentences and cannot be used in positive sentences.

Things have changed somewhat. (Not 'Things have changed at all.')

Things haven't changed at all. (Not 'Things haven't changed somewhat.')

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