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Is it necessary to include a definite article or the words "some" and "any" in questions and negations with plural and uncountable nouns? Let's consider the following scenarios:

1) I'm on the phone with my brother, talking about his roadtrip. Can I simply ask:

Can you see mountains already?

Or should I add a determiner before the noun? For whatever reason this one doesn't sound as idiomatic as its slightly longer version:

Can you see mountains in the distance?

2) I'm at a supermarket. I'm calling my wife and ask her:

Do we need milk?

Again, is the determiner needed? And how is this different from:

Do we need any milk?

3)

I don't hang out with celebrities, nor do I need fame.

How does the sentence change if I add the determiners:

I don't hang out with any celebrities, nor do I need any fame.

4) Why does it seem okay to state:

Thank you, but I don't like wine.

But in the following clause, removing "any" seems wrong?

Thank you, I don't want any wine.

But then again, this sentence seems perfectly fine. Or perhaps it doesn't?

I don't have kids and do not want to have any.

  • The determiners can be freely omitted. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 13 '16 at 15:20
  • The only example where any is needed before the noun is when refusing the offer of wine, since "I don't want wine" might be understood to mean "I would like a different beverage". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 13 '16 at 15:22
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The answer is "yes and no". Sometimes you may omit the article or any determiner, and sometimes you shouldn't. For example:

(On a telephone call) "Hey, I'm on my way to you but I'm lost. Which way do I go?"

"Well, look around. Can you see (any) mountains?"

"Yes, they're off to my right"

"Good, then just head toward the mountains and then turn left at the gas station. Go up the dirt track until you see (some) large rocks. That's where we are camped.

I can't seem to find any rule about this, but it seems that if you have a generic plural or uncountable noun you don't need any determiner. The "some" or "any" is implied, if it could be used in that context. Otherwise you do need a determiner of some kind.

This also seems to depend more on the verb used than the context:

I don't like wine

I don't drink tea

With these, you would not say "any". On the other hand:

I don't want (any) wine

She doesn't eat (any) fish

They don't hang out with (any) comedians.

With these, the "any" is not necessary -- if you leave it out, it is implied.

However, the scope of the sentence might change if you use "some" or "any". "Wine" might refer to wine in general while "any wine" might refer to the bottle you're being offered. "I don't hang out with comedians" is a very broad statement that implies you would never socialize with comedians, while "I don't hang out with any comedians" suggests that's just the current situation, but I have nothing against comedians in general.

If you deliberately omit the determiner, it can make the sentence a more powerful statement. For example an actor might say

"I don't do comedies"

to imply he doesn't do them at all, but say

"I don't do any comedies"

to imply he doesn't do them at present.

In a similar way, "Thank you, I don't want wine" is a strong statement, like you would never drink wine, or (depending on intonation) that you would prefer something else. "I don't want any wine" simply suggests you don't feel like it at the moment.

I'm afraid this might be another of those English situations where you have to learn from experience.

  • Okay, so the determiners in the brackets are optional - they can be freely omitted, right? – Bebop B. Nov 13 '16 at 16:54
  • And what do you think is a differece betwren "I don't have friends", and, at least to my ear, more idiomatic "I don't have any friends"? – Bebop B. Nov 13 '16 at 16:56
  • @BebopB.yes determiners in brackets can be omitted. I don't think there's any difference between "I don't have any friends" and "I don't have friends". In cases where there is a difference it might be subtle, and depend entirely on intonation and context. I wish I could give you a simple rule to follow :( – Andrew Nov 13 '16 at 17:48

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