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 is a function word or expression that replaces another word, phrase, clause, or sentence where a positive statement is being asserted or affirmed. Also known as positive polarity items, assertive pro-forms have factual meanings and are typically related to affirmative declarative sentences.

When Do We Use Assertive Pro-forms?

We use assertive pro-forms to express our belief in the truth, factuality, or existence of what we are saying. By employing assertive pro-forms, we can reinforce the assertion and emphasize our confidence in the statement.

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 rarely 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

Assertive words in a statement are used to refer to an existing entity, but sometimes we may not want to explicitly mention or may not know the specific entity we are referring to. In such cases, we use assertive pro-forms to convey the general idea without specifying the exact entity. Let's compare these sentences:

✓ Sally met somebody.

Use of 'somebody' shows that we know for a fact that Sally met a person. We are sure it happened, so we use an assertive forms.

✗ Sally met anybody.

This sentence doesn't sound right. Use of past tense shows the event happened and we are assertive Sally met someone. Therefore using a non-assertive form is incorrect.

Take a look at another set of examples:

✓ He went out with somebody last night.

✗ He went out with anybody last night.

Using "somewhere" as an assertive pro-form

Assertive Words in Questions

When we are uncertain about the existence of a person or thing, the usual way of asking about their identity is by using non-assertive words. This is because we genuinely seek information and aren't making any assumptions about their existence. For example:

Why would anyone want to do that?

Have you heard anything about their new album?

However, it is possible to use assertive words in questions that are not genuine questions, either because we already know the answer or because we are offering or suggesting something.

In other words, when we form questions using assertive words, the existence of the thing/person we are asking about is asserted. Let's see some examples:

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 want a drink. 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 somebody home?

Here, we have a presupposition that someone might answer.

Assertive Words in Negative Sentences

Negative sentences usually take non-assertive forms but that is not always the case. Note that there is a distinct difference in meaning between using assertive and non-assertive words. When assertive words are used in negative sentences, they often imply an identifiable object or person. Whereas non-assertive words imply absence of a specific object or person. Compare the examples:

Don't do anything until we get there.

✗ I haven't spoken to someone all day.

✓ I haven't spoken to anyone all day.

Tip!

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. For example:

Somebody didn't pay their share tonight.

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

Assertive Words in Conditionals

Conditional clauses express doubt. So naturally, non-assertive words are used in such sentences. Except for when we want to break this norm and form a marked clause.
When we use assertive forms in conditional sentences, we actually do not mean to form a condition. We just use them to show surprise and to imply that we already know the outcome. For example:

If you're tired, sit anywhere you like.

If you're tired, sit somewhere you like.

If you need something, please ask me.

Here, the speaker is sure that the audience needs something and is not actually expressing a condition.

Assertive Words with Modals

Using assertive words with modals implies that we have a particular identity or entity in mind. Both assertive and non-assertive words work with modals of possibility, although with a subtle difference in meaning. Pay attention to the examples:

You can fall in love with anybody.

Here, the possibilities are endless. The speaker doesn't have a pattern or entity in mind.

You can fall in love with somebody.

But here, the speaker is implying a specific entity or person. They know what that 'somebody' is.

With modals of prediction, we can only use assertive words, because we are foreseeing a future and assuming that a specific event will take place in that future. For example:

Someone will win tonight.

Anyone will win tonight.

Warning

Some verbs require non-assertive words. Therefore, they are used with non-assertive pronouns/determiners. Pay attention to the examples:

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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