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Grammar Mishaps: Something vs. Anything

Hub Request: What is the distinction between something and anything?

It's easiest to first look at the definitions of "some" and "any":

Some: An unspecified number or quantity

Any: to any degree or extent; one, some, every, or all without specification

Definition: Anything

Anything (pronoun): Any object, occurrence, or matter whatever.

  • Do you have anything you'd like to say?
  • I will have anything to eat.

Definition: Something

Something (pronoun): An indeterminate or unspecified thing, amount or extent

  • We all remembered something of their visit.
  • She was a biology teacher, but she knew something about physics.

What is the difference?

"Something" implies that the noun in question is finite; is used when there are fewer possibilities; and is selective.

"Anything" implies that the noun is infinite but this is somewhat unrealistic so it is implied that there is a larger set of possibilities than with "something"; it is not selective.

Imagine an entire class of students eligible to go on an honorary field trip. If you would take "some" of the students, you are implying that not all of them are acceptable. If you would take "any" of the students, you are implying that every student would be eligible.

For example:

  • I asked her if there was something she would like to donate. (This implies that there are possibly things that you don't want donated.)
  • I asked her if there was anything that she would like to donate. (This implies that you would take an infinite number of donations.)
  • She would do anything for her children. (This implies that she loves her children so much there is nothing she wouldn't do for them.)
  • She would do something for her children. (This implies that her children aren't as important as other things.)

It is common for "something" to be used in the affirmative and sometimes when asking a question with the expectation of a positive response. This is not a firm rule, just be aware of the context.

  • She bought something at the flea market.
  • Would you give him something to do?

It is common for "anything" to be used in the negative or interrogative and more commonly than"something" with questions.

  • He didn't want anything to do with those girls.
  • Is there anything that I can get you? (You can also say, "Is there something that I can get you," but using "anything" sounds a bit more polite.)

Anyone/Anytime vs. Someone/Sometime

"Anyone" , "someone" , "anytime", and "sometime" use the same basic rules. "Someone/sometime" imply finite possibilities where "anyone/anytime" imply infinite possibilities.

  • I would like to take someone to the dance. (This implies there are limits to whom I would take to the dance.)
  • I would take anyone to the dance. (This is a bit more desperate; I would be willing to take an infinite number of people to the dance.)
  • Please come and see me sometime. (This invitation implies a more finite timeline.)
  • Please come and see me anytime. (This is a much more open invitation to come at anytime in the future.)

Final Note

This was a difficult question to answer. It is not really something I had ever thought about; I always use what "sounds" the best. I commend second language learners because the English language can be so difficult. If you have a better way of explaining this question, please feel free to leave a comment!

Thoughts, Comments, Questions

Yonatan on February 25, 2020:

Thanks so much for your explanations, they were si clear ando your examples are fantástica.Blessing

alexandre on January 01, 2020:

I aprecieted your examples. Thanks.

karthi don on January 09, 2018:

Good

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 04, 2015:

Thanks for making these distinctions clear.

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on June 27, 2013:

Hi Sadat,

Either are okay and mean basically the same thing. :)

Sadat on June 27, 2013:

Could you specifically tell me the difference in the meaning of the following two questions, if there is any?

Do you have something to eat?

Do you have anything to eat?

Jerome on November 03, 2011:

That's a great post! Your explanation is very clear and makes sense. I will remember it ANYtime (!) I have a doubt :)

yuki on August 26, 2011:

Your post is very useful. After reading your post, I have learned a lot about grammer.

Alex on October 28, 2010:

Thank you for great job explaining it! This is the PERFECT explanation! Thank s A LOT!!!

mindy on October 07, 2010:

For me as a non-native speaker, this is extremely hard to get right. Decades ago I learned in school to _always_ use "anything" in questions, and I'm still not done unlearning that supposed rule. What Sven said.

BB on August 18, 2010:

Nice explanation with good examples

Sven on July 16, 2010:

Thank's for the explanation! I have on occasion been given this somewhat nosy response:

"Can anyone explain to me how XYZ works?"

"Not just anyone, no."

In the future I'll be sure to use 'someone' instead :-)

ccortesj on June 16, 2009:

I learned English as second language, I know there are lots of things to improve, and this topic is one of the most dificult for me to understand, but I really like your explanation!

sbheat2 on January 17, 2009:

It was a good article. It helped me a lot with my Literature class!

brix on October 07, 2008:

thanks for the post. I reposted and linked your article.

atgroetsch@hotmail.com on April 17, 2008:

In an example of yours "I asked her if there was something she would like to donate.", shouldn't you have used the subjunctive form of "were", instead of having used the past tense of "was". Even though "asked" is in the past tense, were should have been used to mark the subjectivity of her possibly having had something, or her willingness to donate something; am I correct in saying this?

gredmondson from San Francisco, California on November 22, 2006:

Robin, All of your explanations (which I hadn't read before) made complete sense, and matched my sense of those words. Thanks for your work!

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