Non-assertive Pro-forms

Non-assertive Pro-forms refer to a group of words or phrases that refer to specific things/persons, but it is not important to mention what.

Non-assertive Pro-forms in English Grammar

What Are Non-assertive Pro-forms?

Non-assertive Pro-forms (also called elective pro-forms or elective-existential pro-forms) refer to a group of words or phrases that refer to specific things or persons, but it is not important to say exactly who or what.

Non-assertive words are used when we want to identify any member of some group and mention all of them individually.

When Do We Use Non-assertive Pro-forms?

Non-assertive pro-forms appear in contexts that are non-positive (or non-assertive). They have a concept of non-factuality, which is a concept of Pro-forms, negative, conditional, and comparative clauses, among others.

Non-assertive Words

In addition to 'any-series' of words, we have some other non-assertive words. Let's take a look:

Determiner Pronoun Adverb
any anybody (person) anywhere (place)
anyone (person) anytime (time)
anything (thing) anyhow (manner)

Tip!

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

  • anywhen (adverb of time)
  • anywhither (adverb of purpose)
  • anywhence (adverb of source)

Non-assertive Words in Positive Statements

Stressed 'non-assertive words' are used in positive declarative clauses, and have a non-factual meaning. It does not matter which or who.
Either the truth of the positive statement is denied or unknown.

Anybody with a bit of sense would have refused to go.

Somebody with a bit of sense would have refused to go.

When we use non-assertive words in a statement, we refer to an entity that we do not know exists. Let's compare these sentences:

✗ I called 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.

✓ I called 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.

Non-assertive Words in Questions

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.

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:

Using non-assertive words in questions means the existence of the thing/person we are asking about is not 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?

Is someone home?

Non-assertive Words in Negative Sentences

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.

Non-assertive words often imply an unidentifiable thing or person. Whereas the assertive words imply an identifiable thing or person.

✓ I went to the bar but there wasn't anyone there.

✗ I went to the bar but there wasn't someone there.

Take a look at another set of examples:

✗ 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.

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.

Non-assertive Words in Comparative Clauses

Besides negative sentences and interrogatives, non-assertive words can appear in comparative clauses.

✓ Martin is nicer than anyone I know.

✗ Martin is nicer than someone I know.

Non-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 want anything, call me.

Tip!

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.

Non-assertive Words with Modals

Some modal or semi-modal verbs can only be used non-assertively. For example:

I needn't do anything. (Not I needn't do something.')

I can't bear to hear anymore. (Not 'I can't bear to hear somemore.')

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 become anybody you want to be.

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 become somebody you want to be.

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.)

Factual vs. Non-factual Meaning

A sentence will be spoken in assertive or non-assertive contexts. Assertive forms (such as the 'some-series words') have factual meaning and non-assertive words are related to non-factual meanings (or non-fulfillment or potentiality)

In the table below, you can see the summary of some common assertive and non-assertive words:

Assertive Non-assertive
some any
someone anyone
somebody anybody
something anything
somewhere anywhere
somehow anyhow
sometime anytime

If somebody/anybody calls while I'm out, take their message.

The difference between these two options is associated to the matter of seeing the caller as specific (somebody) or non-specific (anybody).

Assertive words in a context show a positive attitude of the speaker toward the context, whereas non-assertive words show a neutral or negative attitude.

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