27 November 2020
Today, we answer a question from Adriana in Uruguay.
"Hi, I would like to know tips on how to choose affirmative or negative sentences while using ‘nothing,' ‘no one' or ‘nobody,' or ‘anything,' ‘anyone' or ‘anybody.' ... I sometimes make mistakes with this issue. And thus, the sentence can be confusing for the listener. Would you mind clarifying it? Thank you."
Thank you for writing to us. There is a general Standard English grammar rule in that you can only have one negative in a sentence.* However, local speech around the country does not always observe that rule.
Anything, anyone, anybody
With that in mind, we see that "anything" is a word English speakers use to express "a thing of any kind" in a question or a negative statement. Here are examples of both:
Do they have anything to eat?
They do not have anything to eat.
Remember, the negative statement can only have one negative, and, here, it is the word "not." This works the same way with the other words you asked about, "anyone" and "anybody." For example,
Has anyone come to pick up the mail today?
I have not seen anyone this morning.
The negative answer uses "not" and "anyone." You can also add "never" to make a negative statement, as in:
They never found anybody to do that job.
Nothing, no one and nobody
Now, let us look at the negative forms, "nothing," "nobody" and "no one." We use these to talk about an absence or lack of a thing or a person. The verb form that appears with these words is always singular because you cannot have more than one of nothing! Starting with "nothing," you can apply our rule again to create a statement with only one negative. Here is how we can use anything and nothing together.
Is anything happening at your school today?
There is nothing happening at school. Today is a holiday.
We can use "nobody" in the same way: in answer to a question that uses "anybody."
Did anybody help you write the letter?
Nobody helped me. I did it all by myself.
Rules to remember
Here are two simple rules:
- Use "anything" and other words with "any" in questions and statements that include "not" or "no."
- Use "nothing" and the like in statements where there is no other negative word.
I hope that helps to answer your question, Adriana.
And that's Ask a Teacher.
What question do you have about American English? Send us an email at email@example.com
I'm Jill Robbins.
Jill Robbins wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
*Technically, the rule is that there can only be one negative in a clause. A clause is a part of a sentence with its own subject and verb. Some sentences have only one clause. Example: "No one was home." But many sentences have two or more clauses. Example: "No one was home and the house key was not under the plant."
Words in This Story
affirmative – adj. saying or showing that the answer is "yes" rather than "no"
negative – adj. expressing denial or refusal; an answer of "no"