No one saw the thief.

If I rewrite the sentence as "It was anyone who did not see the thief", is it the same in meaning with the original one?

  • 4
    'No one saw the thief' is equivalent to 'Everyone did not see the thief.' – shin Dec 3 '15 at 3:43
  • 2
    Not necessarily. "Everyone didn't see the thief; only a few people did." – snailcar Dec 3 '15 at 5:45
  • @snailboat, Was wondering why would 'everyone' be used when 'Only a few people did (see)'? If that's the case, wouldn't it be better to say, 'Only a few people saw the thief.'? – shin Dec 3 '15 at 7:22
  • 1
    @shin It's because the scope of negation is ambiguous. Is everyone being negated (not everyone = at least one person didn't see it) or is see the thief being negated? See The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p.795 for discussion. (By the way, Everyone did not see the thief is an unlikely sentence regardless of which interpretation you intend.) – snailcar Dec 3 '15 at 7:27

You can't. It's ungrammatical.

No one saw the thief.
*It was no one that saw the thief. ← ungrammatical

Why? Because an it-cleft is a type of ‘specificational’ sentence. That is to say, you're specifying who saw the thief. And you can't do that unless someone actually saw the thief.

This is all laid out formally in Renaat Declerck's 1988 Studies on Copular Sentences, Clefts and Pseudo-Clefts in the opening section on specificational sentences. On page 10 he explains that it-clefts are specificational; on page 14 he writes:

The variable part of a specificational sentence is the 'presupposition', not only in the sense that it represents old information, but also in the sense that it refers to something that is logically presupposed. The sentence It was John who committed the murder logically presupposes that someone committed the murder. Even if the specificational sentence does not contain a formulation of the variable (as in (Who committed the murder?) – It was John) the presupposition remains present. And of course, as can be expected of logical presuppositions, it remains intact when the specificational sentence is put in the negative (It was not John who committed the murder).

In your sentence, the presupposition would be "Someone saw the thief". That would mean there's some variable X in the mind of the speaker and hearer that fits into "the X who saw the thief".

On page 17, Declerck explains that this variable must exist:

The fact that the presupposition of existence attached to the variable of a specificational sentence cannot be eliminated by making the sentence negative follows automatically from the nature of the presupposition. We have defined the presupposition in question as meaning that a specificational sentence requires the variable to be explicitly or implicitly present in the preceding discourse or in the sentence itself. Clearly, if there is no variable, no act of specification can take place. In consequence it is logically impossible that a (negative) specificational sentence could serve to cancel the presupposition that the variable exists. A specificational sentence by its very nature requires that the variable must exist. (emphasis added)

But in your case, the variable does not exist, so you can't turn the sentence into an it-cleft.


No, because "It was anyone who did not see the thief" does not make sense the same way as "No one saw the thief." When we refer to the existence of something, we usually say there is (or there was), not "it was". Also, anyone means any person. "It was" also suggests a particular person (for example, "It was Mr. Smith who saw the thief") but to say that there existed any person who did not see the thief doesn't make sense.

You could say

There was no one who saw the thief


There was not anyone who saw the thief


  • 2
    Or "There was not a single person who saw the thief".... – Catija Dec 3 '15 at 4:17
  • 1
    "It was anyone who did not see the thief" is grammatically correct, but not as natural as "It was someone who did not see the thief." I would not be surprised to see the latter sentence in the last chapter of a mystery novel, when the detective is telling how they deduced who the murderer was. – Jasper Dec 3 '15 at 4:28
  • Note, though, that the syntax of the latter sentence in Jasper's comment is very different from that of the former despite the surface similarity. (I'm not really sure I want to agree that the former is grammatical, by the way . . . ) – snailcar Dec 3 '15 at 5:18
  • @Jasper - Good point; technically "It was anyone who did not see the thief" could be correct in the sense of "It could have been any person who did not see the thief." I'll revise my answer. – stangdon Dec 3 '15 at 15:11
No one saw the thief

One is a pronoun here, and is being used as a synonym for person, or individual. So no one can be reworded as:

Not a single individual...

Saw is a verb and is past tense for to see. A synonym is notice. Plugging this in, and continuing with past tense, our sentence becomes:

Not a single individual noticed the thief

To your question then, is this the same as, "it was anyone who did not see the thief?" It was a good effort, but no, it was not anyone who did not see but instead no one who saw:

There was no one who saw the thief
  • Wow! Thanks a lot for your comments but I'm still confused about it. Please explain it to me more clearly. Thanks again. – yethu Dec 3 '15 at 4:59

No, because "anyone" refers to someone or "some-one" meaning an individual.

Q: Did any-one see the thief?

A: No, no-one saw the thief.

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