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Concourse 2

Assertion and non-assertion


Out here on the web there is a good deal of confusion concerning assertion and non-assertion in English.  The following is a brief attempt to get the terms clear.
Sentences come in four sorts in English.  They can be:

  1. Statements:
        He saw a unicorn (positive)
        He didn't see a unicorn (negative)
  2. Questions:
        Did he see a unicorn? (positive)
        Didn't he see a unicorn? (negative)
  3. Commands:
        Look at the unicorn (positive)
        Don't look at the unicorn (negative)
  4. Exclamations:
        What a beautiful unicorn! (only positive allowed)


Wrong rules

As far as it goes, this is true but among many teachers, and on many websites, there is a further assumption that sentences in English, whatever they do, are either positive, negative or interrogative.  This leads to a second assumption that sentences come in opposed pairs, like this:

  1. Either positive or negative.  For example:
        I have some money
        I don't have any money
  2. Either declarative or interrogative.  For example:
        He has some time
        Does he have any time?

This results in all kinds of error, not least providing learners with 'rules' that don't work properly.  From this analysis, it follows that we can tell learners that we use certain forms of adverbs, determiners and pronouns with these distinct sorts of sentences and then we get quasi-rules such as:

From rules like that, it follows that all these sentences are wrong:

but they aren't wrong, are they?
We need a better way to analyse the language.

(Purely as a matter of fact, you may be interested to know that corpus research has shown that the word any occurs more frequently in positive sentences than in negative and interrogative ones added together.  (Willis 1990:67))


A clearer way to see things

The issue here is that we should view the functions of sentences rather differently, not simply in terms of positive, negative and interrogative, and a way to do that is to consider assertive and non-assertive function so we get:

  1. Assertive forms:
    1. Statement:
          I have brought some bread
          It's a long way
    2. Interrogative:
          Is there some bread in the cupboard?
          Is there someone you want to talk to?
    3. Negative:
          Wasn't there something you needed to ask me? (also interrogative)
          She wasn't somebody I wanted to talk to
          Somebody hasn't been honest
  2. Non-assertive forms:
    1. Statement:
          Any help would be welcome
          It is far away, beyond the mountains
          Anyone who drinks and drives is irresponsible
    2. Interrogatives:
          How far is it?
          Do you have anything to add?
    3. Negative:
          It isn't far
          I don't have any

The usual division into assertive and non-assertive determiners, adverbs and pronouns is as follows:

Assertive forms Non-assertive forms
some- series any- / no- series
already yet
still any / no longer / more
somewhat no / none
as well
a long way far
a lot of much / many
a few / a little few / little
a lot at all
Some of these cause few problems because the sense of them is negative rather than that they require interrogative or negative sentence forms.  The ones that do cause the problems are those that are the subject of the quasi-rules discussed above and it is to these that our attention needs to turn.

What all this boils down to is the fact that we have to look below the surface of a clause and decide what the deep meaning is.


The scope of negation revealed

It is certainly the case that real questions (rather than offers or invitations to say yes) and negative sentences usually take the non-assertive forms but that is not invariably the case as the sets of sentences above go to show.  There is, however, a distinct difference in meaning between:
    I don't know any of the people at this party (non-assertive form of the determiner)
    I don't know some of the people at this party (assertive form of the determiner)

The difference in meaning is to do with the scope of negation.  In the first sentence above, the whole clause, including the prepositional phrase adverbial, at this party, is being negated.  In the second sentence only the verb phrase, don't know, is in the negative and the implication is that I do know some of the people.

Here are some more examples in which the scope of negation is progressively decreased (shown by underlining):
    I didn't see anybody doing anything wrong
in which the both clauses are negated and nobody did wrong
    I didn't see anybody doing something wrong
in which it may be accepted that something wrong was done but I saw nobody doing that
    I didn't see somebody doing something wrong
in which I am prepared to accept that some wrong was done by someone but I deny that I saw it.

The rule is:

If a non-assertive form is used, it will lie outside the scope of the negation


The scope of interrogation

Ostensibly interrogative sentences can hide requests or offers so, for example, in both:
    Can I get you something to eat?
    Will somebody turn the heating up?
we have a natural use of assertive terms (something and somebody) occurring in what look like interrogatives where we would expect non-assertive terms (anything and anybody).  If we look a little deeper, we can see that these are not real questions at all: the first is an offer and the second is a request.

There is a little more to it than that because in sentences such as:
    Has she arrived yet?
    They haven't started yet

    She has already arrived
we have the expected non-assertive yet in the question and negative and the assertive already in the positive sentence.  No problem so far.
However, in:
    Do you think she has arrived yet?
    Do you think she has already arrived?
we can see that in the first example, the question concerns the whole sentence (so we use yet, conventionally) but in the second example, the use of already signals that the interrogation stops at the verb think and the predicate is a positive proposition.
That's quite subtle and, for learners, not particularly intuitive.



When we use a form out of place, so to speak, we are often implying something which the more usual form would not.  In other words, we are marking the item.  For example:
    Did anyone come in?
is a simple unmarked question which requires a yes/no answer but
    Did someone come in?
implies that the questioner is fairly sure the answer will be yes and state who came in.
By the same token,
    Haven't you already bought some vegetables?
strongly implies that the questioner suspects a positive answer but
    Haven't you bought any vegetables, yet?
does not.
Frequently a superficially interrogative sentence disguises a request so if we compare, for example:
    Will somebody help with this?
    Will anybody help with this?
we can see that the first is marked as a request because it can naturally be followed by please whereas the second sentence would be unnatural if we include please.

This phenomenon occurs in conditional clauses, too, so, for example:
    If somebody wants to come in my car, that's OK with me
implies that the speaker is laying particular emphasis (i.e., marking) the pronoun and may have a person in mind or be restricting the offer to a single individual.  The normal, unmarked, sentence would be:
    If anybody wants to come in my car, that's OK with me

In negative clauses this is also apparent.  For example, in:
    I don't need somebody's help
the restriction probably applies only to the hearer but in:
    I don't need anybody's help
the sense is unrestricted.


Condition and contingency

If it snows any more ...  

By their nature, conditional and contingent clauses express some doubt and doubt implies a possible negative outcome.  It is no surprise, then, that in conditional sentences, non-assertive forms are normally used unless, of course, the speaker / writer chooses to mark the clause.

So, for example, we get:
    If you want any help, just ask
which implies that there is a strong possibility that the hearer / reader will not need any help or we can have:
    If you want some help, please ask
which implies that the speaker / writer strongly suspects that the hearer / reader will take the offer up.

Other conditional forms imply even greater doubt so we are more likely to encounter, e.g.:
    If she wanted any help, she would ask
as the unmarked form but:
    If she wanted some help, she would ask
which implies some surprise that she did not ask for help.
The alternative understanding of the second example is that it is the equivalent of:
    Whenever she wanted some help, she would ask
which is not a conditional meaning.

Past forms, because they lack the sense of doubt, can work both ways but the assertive forms do not carry particular marking so we get, e.g.:
    If she had needed any help she would have asked
    If she had needed some help she would have asked
which are functionally synonymous because in neither case was help required.

The use of assertive forms in ostensibly conditional constructions actually undermines the sense of condition altogether so, for example:
    If you have some questions, please wait till the end
implies that the speaker is sure that the audience has questions and is not conditional at all.  It is the equivalent of:
    Please ask your questions at the end.

Other conditional conjunctions work in a similar way so we get, e.g.:
    Unless we have any more snow, the trains should be running OK
which implies that the speaker does not think the snow will interfere with transport but
    Unless we have some more snow, the trains should be running OK
which implies that the speaker believes there is a better chance of more snow.
We can also have:
    Providing any problems are reported immediately, there is no objection
which makes it clear that the speaker / writer does not believe there is much chance of problems arising and we do not normally encounter assertive forms as in:
    ?*Providing some problems are reported immediately, there is no objection
which would imply strongly that problems have already been identified.

so what

So what?

So rather a lot.  The focus on assertive vs. non-assertive forms allows us to explain a number of issues in English use:


The any- vs. some- series of words and other assertive / non-assertive pairs

Would you like some tea?  

We now have an explanation for the use of any and some which does not depend on a crude distinction between statement, interrogative and negative.  What we have is a simpler distinction between assertive forms (the some- series) and non-assertive forms (the any- series).  Like this:

  1. Assertive forms:
    1. Statements:
          I have some new email
          I'd like something to drink
          I want to speak to someone about this
    2. Interrogatives:
          Would you like some tea?
          Is there somebody there?
          Is there something I can do for you?
    3. Negatives:
          He isn't someone I want to spend my time with
          If you can't say something nice, don't speak at all
          Couldn't you see that somebody was waiting for you?
  2. Non-assertive forms:
    1. Statements
          Any news would be welcome
          Anyone can see it's nonsense
          Anything that old is likely to give trouble
    2. Interrogatives:
          Would you like any tea?
          Is there anybody there?
          Is there anything I can do for you?
    3. Negatives:
          There isn't anyone I want to talk to here
          If you can't say anything nice, don't speak at all
          Couldn't you see anybody?
      (also interrogative)

This also clears up much of the confusion with other forms:

  1. Assertive forms:
    1. Statements:
          He has already arrived
          It's a very long way away
          We have a lot of friends
    2. Interrogatives:
          Have you already finished?
          Is it a very long way?
          Has she got a lot of money?
    3. Negatives:
          If he hasn't already finished, I'll help out
          It isn't a long way
          She doesn't have a lot of money
  2. Non-assertive forms:
    1. Statements
          I have yet to start
          It is far from here
          We have many friends in America
    2. Interrogatives:
          Have you finished it yet?
          Is it far?
          Has she got much money?
    3. Negatives:
          I haven't yet read it
          It isn't far away
          She hasn't got much money

As you can see, both assertive and non-assertive forms can be used in all three types of sentence but there are shades of meaning to consider.

The assertive forms, already, a long way and a lot of, can be used in interrogative and negative sentences quite naturally but there are presuppositions inherent in their use:

The non-assertive forms, yet, far, many and much can also be used in positive sentences but again there is a shift in meaning.



Dare I get any closer?  

The use of some semi- and marginal modal auxiliary verbs can be explained with reference to assertive and non-assertive uses.  Some of these verbs can only be used non-assertively.  For example:

  1. The semi-modal auxiliary verb need is used non-assertively so we allow, e.g.:
        I needn't do that
        Need we go now?
    but not the assertive
        *I need go
    Assertively, we prefer the lexical form of the verb:
        I need to go
  2. The semi-modal auxiliary verb dare is similar in that we allow, e.g.:
        Dare I ask?
        He daren't jump
    but not the assertive
        *I dared ask
    Assertively, we prefer the lexical form of the verb:
        I dared to ask
  3. The marginal modal care to also works this way:
        I don't care to eat at restaurants
        Would you care to go to the cinema?
    but not
        *I care to go to the cinema
  4. The modal auxiliary can + bear + infinitive works this way, too:
        I can't bear to hear any more
        Could you bear to explain it again?
    but not
        *I can bear to do it
  5. The modal auxiliary verb can + help +-ing form and + stand + -ing form is similar but only affects the negative form:
        I couldn't help laughing
        I can't stand waiting in queues
    but not
        *I can help crying
        *I can stand waiting
        *Can you help laughing?
        *Can you stand waiting?
  6. The verb mind is normally used non-assertively:
        Do you mind waiting?
        I don't mind at all
    but not
        ?I mind waiting

Other negators

Never give me any lip  

There is a small group of negators in English which require non-assertive forms.  There are six common ones:
barely, hardly, scarcely, rarely, seldom and the true negator never.  For example:

In addition, some other signals of negation need to be considered.

Negative conjunctions
The obvious one is neither ... nor which usually requires the use of non-assertive forms so we get:
    Neither John nor Mary spoke to anyone
The conjunctions but and although also have a negative sense in, e.g.:
    I expected nothing but anything was possible
    He said little although anything he said was worth hearing
Negative prepositions
There is a small number of these.  For example:
    We have finished bar anything you want to add
    Your luggage will be checked in except anything you can carry on board
    Excluding any other people was the aim of the policy
    He arrived without anyone showing him the way
    I am against anything that makes it more expensive
Negative adverbs
A few indefinite frequency adverbs imply a negative sense.  For example:
    He seldom does any work
    They rarely invite anyone
    She infrequently tells me anything
    They hardly ever expect anything good to happen
    She scarcely spoke to anyone
    We have hardly had any time yet
The adverb nearly also often requires a non-assertive form, e.g.:
    Nearly anything you can do will help
Negative adjectives
There are plenty of these and they almost always demand a non-assertive form in the clause in which they occur.
    It was difficult to see anything
    It was hard to meet anyone interesting
    It was tough to go far
    She is reluctant to start yet
    I find it exhausting to do anything in the heat

    It was impossible to help anybody
Negative determiners
These have been discussed above, of course, but it is noted here that some require other non-assertive forms in the clauses in which they appear.  For example:
    There was little opportunity to go anywhere
    We had few chances of winning anything
Negative verbs
There is a recognisable group of these which includes:
    I reject any accusations
    I deny taking it far
    I lacked anything waterproof to wear
    I refuse to start yet
    I forbid you to go anywhere
    I prevented him from doing anything stupid
    You are prohibited from starting it yet
Other verbs that may call for non-assertive forms in the syntax include:
abhor, annul, avert, avoid, deny, deter, detest, disavow, discard, dislike, disprove, disregard, disrupt, distrust, dodge, doom, doubt, duck, elude, escape, eschew, evade, excuse, exterminate, fail, fear, foil, forbid, forestall, forswear, frown on, frustrate, harm, hate, hinder, impair, invalidate, jeopardise, lack, loathe, mangle, mar, negate, neglect, obliterate, obscure, obstruct, omit, ostracise, paralyse, penalise, persecute, poison, prevent, punish, refrain, regret, regret, reject, renounce, repudiate, scrap, shirk, shun, stop, suffocate, threaten, thwart, undermine etc.
Negative nouns
Some nouns are obviously negative and require non-assertive forms in the clause.  For example:
    There is a lack of any sensible ideas
    There is a shortage of any clean water
    Her avoidance of anything controversial made it a bit dull
    There was a scarcity of anyone willing to help
    In the absence of anything better, we chose the steak
Negative conditional clauses
Some conditional sentences carry a negative connotation so we find, e.g.:
    If you do anything wrong, you will be told about it
    She will get arrested if she does anything so stupid
    I'll close the meeting now unless anyone has anything to add

One other expression also requires non-assertive forms: at all.  We can have, e.g.:
    Did you get any money at all?
    She didn't enjoy it at all

but not
    *I liked the food at all


Where it is applicable, counter examples are provided to show that the normally cited rules for using some items are not rules at all.

Assertive forms Non-assertive forms Examples following the 'rules' Counter examples of breaking the 'rules'
some- series any- / no- series Someone is knocking at the door
Is anyone there?
No one is there
Is someone going to help?
It wasn't something I wanted to do
Any money would be welcome
already yet I have already finished
Have you finished yet?
I haven't finished yet
Have you finished the work already?
She has yet to give me an answer
still any / no longer / more I'm still at university
I'm not at university any longer
I'm no longer at university
Is she still complaining?
He's not still here, is he?
somewhat no / none I am somewhat better informed
I'm none the wiser now
I'm no better informed
Not applicable
as well
either She is coming as well / too
She isn't coming either
Is she coming as well?
She isn't bringing her mother, too
a long way far It's a long way off
Is it far?
It isn't far
It isn't a long way
It is too far to cycle
Can you go a long way on the battery?
a lot of much / many He has a lot of time
He doesn't have much time
He doesn't have many friends
I have much to do
We have many ideas
We didn't have a lot of time
a few / a little few / little We have a few bottles
We want a little more time
We have few ideas
We have little time
Not applicable
a lot at all I enjoyed it a lot
I didn't enjoy it at all
Not applicable
lexical forms of semi-modal auxiliary verbs modal forms of semi-modal auxiliary verbs I need to take a break
I needn't take a break
Not applicable

Try a test on some of this.

Related guides
negation for other ways to look at non-assertive forms
interrogatives for the guide to forming questions in English
semi-modal auxiliary verbs for more on the use of lexical and modal forms of these verbs and how assertive and non-assertive forms apply

Chalker, S, 1984, Current English Grammar, Basingstoke: Macmillan
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman
Willis, D, 1990, The Lexical syllabus London: Harper Collins.