1

When reading about someone on the OALD, I saw the following note:

The difference between someone and anyone is the same as the difference between some and any. Look at the notes there.

The note that I read for some is the following:

In negative sentences and questions any is usually used instead of some:

I don't want any more vegetables.
Is there any wine left?

However, some is used in questions that expect a positive reply:

Would you like some milk in your coffee?
Didn't you borrow some books of mine?

Does that apply to someone too? Should I use someone in a question when I am expecting a positive answer?

Does someone know the answer?

2

I think your distinctions between some and any sound correct, though I can't guarantee for certain that there are no exceptions.

Someone and anyone do not have a set rule, however. There isn't a hard-and-fast rule; they're used differently in different situations. In some situations there is a slight difference between them, in others I would consider them nearly interchangeable, and in others you must choose one or the other to be properly understood as they can have entirely disparate meanings.

John Lawler's answer here on ELU attempts to explain why there is no set rule for when to use someone and anyone:

You are correct. There is no clear way to do this. Robin Lakoff's paper entitled "Some Reasons Why There Can't Be some ~ any Rule" is precisely about this situation.

Short summary of a few of the reasons:

  1. Any is a Negative Polarity Item, but some isn't.
  2. Many environments (like questions) allow NPIs like any, but don't disallow some.
  3. There are several kinds of any, including NPI any, and "Free Choice" any, as in
    • Any idiot can solve this problem.

And to answer the question in your title, it's idiomatic to use anyone there; "Is there anyone among you who knows the answer?" (that is, more than one of them could know it). So it should read:

Does anyone know the answer?

  • This seems about right to me. There's no absolute answer, but idiomatically I'd also go for anyone rather than someone in your final example. Mind you, there's a similar "it all depends, but exactly what it depends on is nothing clearly defineable" aspect to the other two possible choices - anybody and somebody. – FumbleFingers Jul 10 '13 at 17:42
4

In the case of "some milk" or "some books", "some" refers to a known or suspected quantity. "Somebody", like "some", refers to a specific though unnamed person: if it is likely that the answer is known, the "Somebody" in "Does somebody know the answer?" invites a single person to answer (thus avoiding a cacophony of simultaneous related answers).

The "anybody" in "Does anybody know the answer?" presupposes a difficulty or unlikelihood of finding the answer and invites all contributions; similarly "any milk" in the question "Do you want any milk?" refers to a range of possible types and amounts of milk, which may or may not be at hand. In contrast, replacing "any milk" with "some milk" would mean, in effect, "do you want a (limited) portion of the milk I have or could get?"

2

The examples given are definitely ones in which some is a better choice than any, but I'm not positive the rule they've given you is the most helpful one to go by. For example, I would ask, "Would you like some milk in your coffee?" even if I was almost positive the person I was talking to takes their coffee black.

I think the more consistent way of looking at it would be that with some there's a specific subset you're referring to, while with any there isn't.

Would you like some milk in your coffee?

I probably have a container of milk that I'm offering them, or am prepared to pour some. I'm specifically offering that milk. Alternatively, if I was getting up to go fetch some coffee, and before I leave am trying to determine how "you" would like it, I'd be more likely to word it like this:

Do you want any milk in your coffee?

I don't have any milk. I'm asking if you would like the presence of milk -- any milk -- in your coffee.

[It's only fair to note that I may also use this phrasing in the same situation as the example above, and would be more likely to do so if I'm expecting a negative answer. The rule you found about positive and negative expectations was not wrong, I just don't think it's the most helpful way to think about it.]

This is perhaps a little clearer with your other example sentence...

Didn't you borrow some books of mine?
Did you borrow some books of mine?

There are specific books I have in mind. Perhaps I vaguely remember you asking to borrow some specific titles. Perhaps I'm missing certain volumes from my collection and am wondering if you have them. Compare this to...

Didn't you borrow any books of mine?
Did you borrow any books of mine?

The implication of each question here is slightly different, but in both I'm referring to the entire set of my books. In the first, perhaps I thought you borrowed some books but have realized none of them are missing. Or perhaps you're complaining that you have no books to read and I'm surprised because I thought you took any of mine. In the second, it sounds like I've given you permission to borrow anything from my collection and am just wondering whether or not you've done so.


Alright, so now to get to your actual question:
Yes, you can use the same rules for someone and anyone.

Does someone know the answer?
Does anyone know the answer?

What's the difference here? Honestly, not a lot in this context. I would, however, be more likely to use anyone when posting a question on a public forum such as this one, and asking if there was anyone out there who may be able to help.

Is somebody in there?
Is anybody in there?

There's a clearer difference for this question. When I'm asking if someone is out there, it does sound like I believe there is. Perhaps I heard a noise. Perhaps the door is locked from the inside. Conversely, when I ask if anybody is in there, I don't have an implied expectation. So, your positive expectation rule works here. However, so does my specific subset rule. If I ask for somebody then I'm referring to the person who made that noise I heard, or the person who locked that door from the inside. When I ask for anybody I mean just that -- anybody.

And, finally, I'm far more likely to use anybody if I think the question may apply to multiple people, while I'll use somebody if I only need one person.

Can somebody pass me the rice?

It doesn't matter who passes it, but I only need one person to.

Has anybody seen my keys?

Just because my mom saw them, doesn't mean my dad didn't. Either one, or both, would be able to tell me where to look for my keys.

So, while I said I'd use anyone while posting a question here on ELL, I might use someone if I worded it differently:

Does anyone know the answer?
Can someone show me how to do this?


There are cases where you can jump back and forth or use whichever one appeals to you. However, I think this guideline is a good one to go by. And if you encounter a case where you use it and still aren't sure which word's best then it will usually mean they're both equally acceptable.

  • 2
    I think that rationale for "Is somebody/anybody in there?" is a bit strained, given that the question is addressed to a possibly non-existent person (from whom you're expecting an answer if he does exist). Would anyone really choose between somebody/anybody based on how likely they thought it was that they might get an answer? In fact, my logic tells me that probably you do think someone's there, if you're asking the question at all. Google Books confirms "Hello? Is anybody there?" is far more common than the somebody version (where "Hello?" implies you think they exist). – FumbleFingers Jul 9 '13 at 22:51
  • I agree with @FumbleFingers, and I also find your milk example odd; I can't imagine why I would ask Do you want any milk in your coffee? if I didn't have any milk. That seems a pointless question, and therefore a pointless distinction. I think this is probably not as complicated as it seems; I have a feeling this is one of those things where there isn't so much a rule as an idiomatic set of what sounds right and when (and some cases where you must use one). John Lawler's answer to a similar question on ELU seems to support this. – WendiKidd Jul 10 '13 at 16:36
  • 1
    I'm trying to pin down a guideline that helps a non-native speaker pick the most appropriate word when they don't yet have the familiarity to know which "feels right." Despite the above comments about my rationale, I maintain I will be more likely to offer "any milk" before I run to the coffee shop, "some milk" if I'm about to pour what I have, for "someone" if I heard something, and "anyone" if I didn't. I agree there isn't a hard rule (as I said flip-flopping is often acceptable). But rather, I do think this thought process will generally get you to the word with the correct implication. – Emmabee Jul 10 '13 at 17:38
  • 1
    I certainly think there's something in what you say, but I can't help feeling the net effect is to make it all seem far more complicated than it really is. If I'd answered, I think the first point I'd have made is that almost certainly the vast majority of native speakers wouldn't use either determiner when simply asking "Would you like milk in your coffee?" – FumbleFingers Jul 10 '13 at 17:47

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