logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
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 is the manager
        Is he the manager?

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 'rules' such as:

  • Use some, someone, something, somebody etc. in positive sentences.  For example:
        I have some bread
        I have any bread
    Use any, anyone, anything, anybody in negative and interrogative sentences.  For example:
        I don't have any bread
        Do you have any bread?

        I don't have some bread
        Do you have some bread?
    Did you want something?
        I'm not seeing someone else
    are both wrong.
  • Use a long way in positive, negative and interrogative sentences.  For example:
        It is a long way
        It isn't a long way
        Is it a long way?
    Use far only negative and interrogative sentences.  For example:
        Is it far?
        It isn't far
        It is far
        It's far enough for me to take a taxi
    is wrong.
  • Use a lot of or many in positive, negative and interrogative sentences.  For example:
        He has a lot of money
        He doesn't have a lot of money
        Does he have a lot of money?
        He has many friends
        He doesn't have many friends
        Does he have many friends?
    Use much in negative and interrogative sentences.  For example:
        He doesn't have much money
        How much money does he have?

        He has much money
        I much enjoyed the film
    is wrong.
  • Use already in positive sentences and yet in negative and interrogative sentences
        He has already finished
        He hasn't finished yet
        Has he finished yet?

        He has yet finished
        He hasn't already finished
        Has he already finished?
        She has yet to decide
        Have you finished already?!
    are both wrong.

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

  • Anybody can come in
  • Anything you can do would help
  • I don't know some of these people
  • Do you know something about this?
  • She denied stealing any money
  • That is far from the truth
  • It is far away from here
  • We have given it much thought
  • I have yet to see him
  • Have you done that already?

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


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 forms so we get:

  1. Assertive forms:
    1. Statement:
          I have 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 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 is being negated.  In the second sentence only the verb phrase 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 that if a non-assertive form is used, it will lie outside the scope of the negation.

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)
  • The assertive forms used in questions often imply that the intention is to communicate an offer or to make it clear that a positive answer is expected.  The non-assertive forms are more truly open questions.  Compare:
        Is there somebody at the door? (I heard knocking)
        Is there anybody at the door? (I have no idea whether there is or not)
  • Assertive forms used in negative statements often imply an identifiable thing or person.  The non-assertive form implies an absence of something (i.e., refer to quantity not identity).  Compare:
        I couldn't find somebody who knew the answer (a particular knowledgeable person)
        I couldn't find anybody who knew the answer (= nobody knew the answer)
  • Some verbs which imply non-assertive use by their nature also require non-assertive forms of the pronoun / determiner.  We saw an instance of the verb deny above.  Compare, e.g.:
        I doubt we'll have any rain vs. I expect we'll have some rain
        I hate any rudeness
    vs. I can accept some rudeness
    etc.  For a full list of verbs which imply negation and require non-assertive forms, see the guide to negation, linked in the list at the end.

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

  1. Assertive forms:
    1. Statements:
          He has already arrived
          It's a long way away
          We have a lot of friends
    2. Interrogatives:
          Have you already finished?
          Is it a 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


Dare I get any closer?  

The use of some semi- and marginal modal 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 modal 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 modal 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 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:

  • I barely have any food at home
  • He has scarcely started yet
  • I have hardly heard much noise
  • He rarely has much to do
  • I seldom hear anything good about her
  • You never have far to go

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


Assertive forms Non-assertive forms Examples
some- series any- / no- series Someone is knocking at the door
Is anyone there?
No one is there
already yet I have already finished
Have you finished yet?
I haven't finished yet
still any / no longer / more I'm still at university
I'm no longer at university
I'm not at university any longer
somewhat no / none I somewhat better informed
I'm no better informed
I'm none the wiser now
as well
either She is coming as well / too
She isn't coming either
a long way far It's a long way off
Is it far?
It isn't far
a lot of much / many He has a lot of time
He doesn't have much time
He doesn't have many friends
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
a lot at all I enjoyed it a lot
I didn't enjoy it at all
lexical forms of semi-modal verbs modal forms of semi-modal verbs I need to take a break
I needn't take a break

Related guides
negation for other ways to look at non-assertive forms
semi-modal 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