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 known as elective or elective-existential pro-forms, are a group of words or phrases that refer to specific things or persons without specifying exactly who or what they are. They are used when we want to identify any member of a group without specifying individual members.

When Do We Use Non-assertive Pro-forms?

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

Non-assertive Words

Typically, non-assertive words are formed using 'any-'. Let's take a look:

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

Non-assertive Words in Negative Sentences

Tip!

There are some uncommon non-assertive words that are rarely 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 affirmative declarative clauses, and have a non-factual meaning. In such cases, the specific identity of the subject may not matter, and the truth of the positive statement may be uncertain or denied. For example:

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

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

Non-assertive words are often used in a statement to refer to an entity whose specific identity is unimportant or unknown. Let's compare these sentences:

✗ I called anybody.

✓ I called somebody.

Non-assertive Words in Questions

The normal way of asking questions about the identity of a person or thing, when we are unsure of their existence or specific identity, is by using non-assertive words. This is because such questions are typically asked to gather information and are not based on any assumptions about the existence or identity of something. The use of non-assertive words in questions shows that the existence of the thing/person we are asking about is not asserted.

Tip!

Keep in mind that it is possible to use assertive words in questions that are not genuine questions. Either because we already know the answer or we are simply offering or suggesting something.

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?

Is someone home?

Non-assertive Words in Negative Sentences

Negative sentences usually take non-assertive forms but that is not always the case. Note that there is a difference in meaning between using assertive and non-assertive words. Non-assertive words often imply an unidentifiable thing or person. Whereas 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 pay their share 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 also 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 express doubt. So naturally, non-assertive words are used in these clauses. Except when we want to break this norm and make a marked clause. For example:

If you're tired, sit anywhere you like.

If you want anything, call me.

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.')

Both assertive and non-assertive words can be used with modals of possibility, although with a subtle 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 implies that you can become that particular idea that you have in mind. They know what that 'somebody' is.

Warning

Some verbs naturally require non-assertive words. 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 an assertive or non-assertive context. 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 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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