Why is the word "anything" used even though it cannot be used for affirmative sentences? Why isn't it "something"? I would say it like “It is only a fool who becomes something.”

  • 3
    That line looks like an "awkward" translation from Dostoyevsky's original Russian text. I'm not convinced a native speaker would naturally use "anything" there. I think the entire construction is inherently awkward anyway, but "something" would probably be better than "anything". It's not worth spending time on it, though, because a native speaker would probably use a completely different construction to start with Jun 29 at 14:08
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    I don't see any problem with either the choice of anything or the overall structure of the sentence here. I agree that modern idiomatic English would probably be more likely to use something, but this version is perfectly understandable.
    – stangdon
    Jun 29 at 14:54
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    This doesn't look like anything a native English speaker would say. Although it is grammatically correct, it doesn't really make any logical sense, especially without further context. Using "something" makes no difference. It's still illogical. I'm going to assume this is either a misquote/mistranslation. Sorry.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jun 29 at 15:38
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    I am baffled by the people who say this doesn't make sense. Does it help to think of it this way? "Of the various kinds of people in the world - the genius, the fool, the saint, the sinner - it is only the fool who becomes anything different than what he already is."
    – stangdon
    Jun 29 at 16:00
  • 6
    Why do you think "anything" can't be used in affirmative sentences? For example, "You can be anything you want to be".
    – The Photon
    Jun 29 at 16:03

1 Answer 1


The reason that anything works here is because, although the sentence is technically positive polarity, it has a type of negative meaning.

Words like anything, ever, at all, and yet usually occur in negative sentences:

  • *I have got anything yet. (ungrammatical)
  • I haven't got anything yet.
  • *I have ever been to Paris. (ungrammatical)
  • I haven't ever been to Paris.

However, they can also occur in other sentences which have some type of negative meaning. For example, yes/no questions represent a choice between a positive and negative version of the proposition. So these work fine in yes/no questions:

  • Have you got anything yet?
  • Have you ever been to Paris?

These types of word are often known as ɴᴇɢᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ ᴘᴏʟᴀʀɪᴛʏ ɪᴛᴇᴍs. The environments they occur in are sometimes known as ɴᴇɢᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ ᴛʀɪɢɢᴇʀs.

The word only, which we see in the Original Poster's example, has a type of hidden negative meaning. Consider:

  • Only Usain Bolt has run the 100m in under 9.6 seconds.

This sentence means the same as:

  • Nobody has run the 100m in under 9.6 seconds, apart from Usain Bolt.

And because of the negative meaning involved, we can use negative polarity items such as ever here:

  • Only Usain Bolt has ever run the 100m in under 9.6 seconds.

The word only is therefore often a negative trigger, allowing the use of words such as any, every and so forth.

The Original Poster's sentence is:

  • It is only the fool who becomes anything.

This means the same as:

  • Nobody becomes anything, apart from the fool.

This hidden negative meaning makes the use of anything possible here. Notice we could easily use other negative polarity items here too, for example ever or at all:

  • It is only the fool who ever becomes anything at all.
  • Hello! You are incorrect about "anything" though; "If you like anything here, please feel free to take it." has no negative meaning whatsoever.
    – user21820
    Jun 30 at 13:17
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    @user21820 Hi! You misread what I said, I think. Anything, ever, at all etc don't have negative meanings, they just occur in negative environments. :-) However, I have a surprise for you!!! Your particular sentence is a conditional: If you like anything here, please feel free to take it. The protasis, as its called in the trade, is the bit in bold there. Conditional protases are just like polar questions, they explicitly allow for two possibilities a positive one and a negative one. In your case a) that you like something or b) that you don't! Jun 30 at 14:47
  • @user21820 And it's the negative possibility that licences the use of negative polarity items! Jun 30 at 14:48
  • I don't agree, but I don't have the time for a detailed rebuttal, so never mind! =)
    – user21820
    Jun 30 at 16:02

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