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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 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:

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.


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)

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 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:

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 auxiliary verbs modal forms of semi-modal auxiliary 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 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