Before we start, let’s be clear – when we talk about some and any, we’re also talking about compound words like somebody, anywhere, something and so on.
The bad rule
OK, so, the bad rule which is often given about when to use some and any seems simple.
Use some in positive sentences like I saw some birds.
Use any in negative sentences, such as I didn’t want any chips and in questions – Do you know anyone here?
Sometimes, an exception to the rule is given. Now, you should always be suspicious of rules with exceptions (that’s a fairly good life lesson, in my opinion, but for now, we’ll simply apply it to less controversial things like, for example, science and grammar).
Anyway, the exception sometimes given is that some is used in questions that are offers or requests like Would you like some tea?
The problem is that following this rule, the following sentences would be considered incorrect.
He doesn’t like some of our ideas.
Can somebody help me?
Is there something I should know?
I’ll go anywhere you want to go.
Anything you can do, I can do better.
But all of them are perfectly correct, and natural.
This ‘rule’ is a huge simplification. It should really be something like ‘some is a bit more common in positive sentences, offers and requests than any, and any is a bit more common than some in negative sentences and questions.’
But that’s such a long rule to remember and ‘a bit more common’ doesn’t tell us if following the rule would mean we’re right 51% of the time, or 76%, or 81%…
Don’t break the rule, throw it away!
You see, the difference between some and any isn’t a point of grammar at all. There is no rule to learn. This is a vocabulary, not a grammar question. It’s about the meaning of the words some and any.
Above is a diagram that shows the meaning of some and any. Each circle = all our ideas.
Let’s look at circle one – He doesn’t like some of our ideas.
OK, now let’s look at circle two – He likes some of our ideas.
In both cases, there are ideas that he likes and ideas that he doesn’t like.
Which sentence we choose to say depends on how we see the situation – is the glass half empty or half full?
But if we say He doesn’t like any of our ideas (circle 4), things are looking bad. It doesn’t matter which idea we give him, he doesn’t like it. There is no restriction.
This is the difference between some and any. People use some when they feel there is a restriction or a limit, and they use any when they don’t feel there is a restriction.
More examples with some and any
I might say She likes some kinds of chocolate because I know that dark chocolate and chocolate with nuts are OK with her, but white chocolate is not.
If I say Can someone help me? I feel there is a restricted, or limited number of people available. This limit could be, for example, the number of people in the room, or it could be the people that I know can hear me speaking.
But if I say Can anyone help me? it’s because I don’t really feel there is a restriction, or I don’t care – I simply want help! It doesn’t matter who helps me – I just need help!
What about that exception to the rule?
That exception we talked about before is also essentially meaningless.
Would you like anything to eat? doesn’t recognize the restriction. It feels open (and therefore more welcoming or generous, no?)
Using this sentence doesn’t mean I have an unlimited selection of food to offer you – obviously, nobody has! – it simply means I don’t feel the restriction is important or relevant.
So, that’s the difference between some and any. It might be a little harder to understand than the bad rule, but it always works and there are no exceptions!
If this has been useful, leave a comment below, or tell us about any other bad English rules you’d like us to look at!