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Which one of these is right?

Is there a way [...]?

Is there any way [...]?

May I use either? If yes, what's the difference?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The expression a way alludes to one particular way. The expression any way alludes to one of any number of possible ways.

As you mentioned in your astute comment, at the time of asking the question, there's really no difference. Yes, you can use either one of them – in this context.


Is there a way to roll babookamitzes uphill, without breaking into a sweat?
Is there any way to roll babookamitzes uphill, without breaking into a sweat?

I would say that these questions have no difference in meaning. Why? Let's assume I know three ways to accomplish this task. No matter which question you asked me, my answer would be the same:

Yes, I know at least three ways to do that.

I would not be more or less inclined to mention only one method if you used a way instead of any way, or vice-versa.

In other contexts, though, the words a and any are not interchangeable. In fact, in some contexts, replacing one with the other would result in an ungrammatical statement:

I know a way we can get to Timbuktu from Constantinople. okay
I know any way we can get to Timbuktu from Constantinople. incorrect

Any time we try to plan a picnic, it rains. okay
A time we try to plan a picnic, it rains. incorrect

But, in the context of asking a question about solving a problem, either one is just fine:

Do you know a way we can get to Timbuktu from Constantinople?
Do you know any way we can get to Timbuktu from Constantinople?
(answer to both questions: Yes: we can fly, or take a train.)

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I just can say Great! –  mok Mar 1 '14 at 13:39
I'm glad you found my answer helpful, but I always feel a little funny seeing an answer accepted so quickly (in this case, 10 minutes). I'd rather wait 10 hours. I've always thought it's best to wait awhile; after all, there may be something I'm forgetting here, or someone could compose an even better answer. You might want to visit this interesting discussion, and keep those thoughts in mind for next time. –  J.R. Mar 1 '14 at 13:42
For sure. Again really useful. Indeed I thought you mentioned exactly what I wanted, but you are true. –  mok Mar 1 '14 at 13:45
Does the distinction between a and any arise because, in those cases, a is being used as a synonym for some instead? e.g. I know some way we can get to Timbuktu from Constantinople. –  trans Aug 1 '14 at 11:37

I have to partially disagree with extend J.R.'s answer here. They are correct that when asking the question

Is there any/a way to...

it is often the case that the two words are interchangeable. However, this is only the case when there's a neutral tone to the question. For instance, the question

Is there a way to do draw a perfect circle?

works just as well as

Is there any way to draw a perfect circle?

But if the question has an implicit extra meaning, then this is no longer the case. For instance, after spending several hours trying to draw a perfect circle, one might yell

Is there any way to draw a perfect circle?

In which case any cannot simply be replaced with a, as it would remove the speaker's implicit suggestion that no such method appears to exist. Not to mention that emphasizing a comes off as an awkward speech pattern here. By shifting the emphasis, one could get the sentence

Is there a way to draw a perfect circle?

Which is very similar, but has, to my mind, a slightly different tone.

Similarly, if your neighbour is blasting music, one may ask

Is there any way you could turn down the music?

Which does not work as well with a, because any suggests an uncertainty. In this case this is done to make the phrase more polite. You are requesting that the volume be lowered, but allowing for the possibility that the volume has a good reason to be high.

In summary, I would say that using a usually expresses a lack of assumptions about the answer to the question, while using any can suggest that one doubts or is uncertain of the existence of a solution.

Edit: If in doubt, I would favour always using any over a in a question like this, as I am at a loss for any context in which a could not reasonably be replaced with any.

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I wouldn't say that you are disagreeing with my previous answer, so much as making it more complete. Nice analysis. +1. –  J.R. Mar 1 '14 at 19:17
@J.R. fair enough. Edited accordingly. –  Alexis Beingessner Mar 1 '14 at 19:24

I think J.R. and Alexis are correct, although I would add that when asking a question in this manner "any" often adds a nuance that the speaker expects that the answer will be "no" or something negative.

For these examples:
A: Is there a way to roll babookamitzes uphill, without breaking into a sweat?
B: Is there any way to roll babookamitzes uphill, without breaking into a sweat?

"A" sounds neutral, however "B" has a more negative nuance implying that the speaker thinks that answer is no.

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Either thinks the answer is no, or else is getting exasperated or frustrated, perhaps. You're right, though, sometimes there are slight nuances, even if the underlying meaning is fairly consistent. –  J.R. Mar 2 '14 at 20:29

Both are correct!

Is there a way? - You are a bit specific about that way (though you don't know).
Is there any way? - You are talking about some way without any specification.

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I'm a little confused. I think in both cases I don't know that even if there is a way, so how can I be specific. I'll be really thankful if you explain more. –  mok Mar 1 '14 at 13:11
Check this about any, this'll clarify the matter - oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/any –  Maulik V Mar 1 '14 at 13:19
@mok Okay, let me try but not in this case. If you need some money, you ask to your colleague Is there a person who can help me? This would directly mean can someone (there in your group/office/acquaintance) help you? If you say, is there anyone who can help me, it becomes broader and includes any person on this earth! –  Maulik V Mar 1 '14 at 13:26

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