"Any" = "hardly any"?

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One of the segments in CNN's "Planet in Peril: Battle Lines", 12/14/2008, led with this quotation about the market in shark's fins:

PETER KNIGHTS, CO-FOUNDER, WILDAID: The tradition will end. The question is will it end before there's any sharks left?

This seems to be one of those cases where the interaction among multiple negatives and scalar predicates ends up one negative off, plus or minus. At least for me, Mr. Knights' sentence means roughly the opposite of what he intended, if it means anything at all. (I take it that he meant "… before there's no sharks left" or "… before all the sharks are gone".) But apparently CNN's editors didn't have any problem with it — was this a sign of a difference in grammar, or just another indication that mis-negation is hard to fail to miss?

There are enough examples of this type out there to suggest that for some people, any can sometimes mean something like "hardly any" or "barely any":

(link) I'm probably getting paid more than most comics on the club circuit. It's just that all of it goes before there's any money left for kit.

(link) Russ Mitchell weighs in on the subject of healthcare today, and specifically the problem that healthcare technology is driving prices up so far and so fast that at present rates it won't be all that long until there's any money left over for anything else.

I take it that the authors of these sentences wouldn't use "any money" to mean "hardly any money" in a simple clause, without the context of a subordinator like before or until:

?There's any money left for kit. ≠ There's hardly any money left for kit.

?There's any money left over for anything else. ≠ There's hardly any money left for anything else.

So perhaps this is just another example like "no head injury is too trivial to ignore", where there isn't a different grammar, but just a common confusion. But I wonder.


  1. Sky Onosson said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    Interesting… I find the 2nd example (the "kit" one) completely unproblematic, but the other two are difficult for me. For some reason, the last one is entirely uninterpretable with the intended meaning (whereas the first one is questionable, but understandable), though perhaps that has more to do with overall brevity.

  2. Z. D. Smith said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

    I regard this as an error, probably of the cut and paste variety. I don't think that strictly speaking the writer considered 'any sharks left' to be performing the same function as 'hardly any sharks left' or 'no sharks left'; I think that the sentence was composed—in the writer's head or on paper—at one point as 'will there be any sharks left when it ends?' and it made the transition to its current form incompletely.

    [(myl) It can't be a literal "cut and paste" error in this case, because the example is in the transcript of spoken remarks. I heard it on the air first, in fact, and found the transcript by searching for similar examples on line. ]

  3. Timothy Martin said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

    Ditto what Sky said. The "kit" example may not have the best wording, but the number of negatives seems correct to me. As proof, changing any to no fixes the shark example, but it breaks the kit one: It's just that all of it goes before there's no money left for kit.

  4. Stephen Downes said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    Don't know why comments are closed on the Boxing Day post – but it may be the case that the references are not British, but Canadian. Canada has always celebrated Boxing Day, and there is a significant Canadian influence on U.S. comic strips.

  5. Drew Smith said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

    Looks to me as if Knights confused the following two phrases:

    "…before there are no more sharks left"
    "…while there's any sharks left"

    [(myl) This is quite plausible. But it's curious that the CNN producers and editors not only failed to remove the result from the interview with Knights, they actually used it to headline the whose segment about overfishing of sharks. So either the mistake is hard to catch as well as easy to make, or else there are speakers of English for whom it's not a mistake at all. Just as "anymore" now means "these days" for some speakers, it's conceivable that plain "any" could come to have an optional interpretation as "hardly any". I think this is probably not what's happening, on the grounds that the stand-alone versions given above are presumably bad for everyone; but that's mere conjecture on my part. ]

  6. Jay Levitt said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

    When I lived in Northern Virginia, I noticed what I assume is a common Southern-ism use of "anymore":

    "Anymore, I only need to eat one scoop of ice cream."

    which of course means

    "I don't need to eat two scoops of ice cream anymore."

    I wonder if that same sort of reverse-backflip-"any" is at play here.

    [(myl) Yes, "positive anymore" is well documented (see here for some discussions in earlier LL posts), though I'm used to seeing it described as a midwestern rather than southern phenomenon. And if Knights' quote represents a language change rather than a mistake, it might be an analogous change in "any". However, as I noted in the original post and in responding to the previous comment, I'm betting on the mis-negation theory, pending evidence that there are people for whom "there's any money left" can mean "there's hardly any money left". ]

  7. Russell said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

    Did you mean you take it that they wouldn't use "any" without before/until? (otherwise, the "so, perhaps…" comment seems strange to me)

    [(myl) I meant that the authors of these examples (I surmise) wouldn't use "any" to mean "hardly any" in a simple main-clause context, as opposed to before- or until-clauses, where they may be producing a sort of blend between e.g. "before … no __" and "while … any __", or "until … no __" and "as long as … any __". ]

    Anyway, this reminds me distantly of the distinction (noted first(?) by R Lakoff) between some and any in particular contexts:

    – Who wants any/some cookies?

    Where the expectation with any is that no one or not many people will want cookies (or maybe more likely, that this is a rhetorical question); with some, a positive response is likely. And:

    – If you eat any/some cookies, I'll whip you.

    Where, very roughly, this is a threat with any, but a promise with some.

    One might add to this a difference between before anything happens and before something happens. (Contrast "how long can a person go without food before something/anything happens?" I find the "anything" version…well, hilarious.)

    This doesn't directly address how the original sentence came about (by difference in grammar or negation-related snafu), but maybe it raises a third option: rather than having a "hardly-any" version of "any" across the board, some people have a context-specific "any." OTOH, maybe they don't but the above sort of examples point to why the over/undernegation issue surfaces here.

  8. Karen said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

    I'm confused. Your example ( It's just that all of it goes before there's any money left for kit.) seems completely normal to me, and I couldn't put a "hardly" into it. (before there's hardly any money left…)

  9. Lee Morgan said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

    My guess as to the reason that these examples are easy to miss is that there is something exceptionally difficult to parse about this kind of under- or overnegation, and therefore readers or listeners rely on context rather than parsing to provide the sentence's meaning.

  10. dr pepper said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

    I read that as saying "before" but meaning "while".

  11. Rick S said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 10:48 pm

    The kit example makes sense to me, too, though I thought I agreed with you at first. It's awkwardly phrased, but unlike the other examples, "all of it goes before there's hardly any money left for kit" means something different if the intended meaning is that there's no money left for kit (which is how I read it).

    Nevertheless, it's interesting that all three examples use the contraction there's where I would expect either there's not or there isn't/aren't. If there were no pending negation, there wouldn't be any choice of contraction, but with the negation present there are two negating contractions to choose from. Maybe this false "double negative" cancels out in production, leaving the positive one.

    Googling "before there's any" * left found your examples, but "before there is any" * left didn't find any more examples in the first few pages (though it did find examples where the * represented various negativizing terms). So it might be that the contraction is involved with the mis-negation somehow.

  12. Mark F. said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 10:48 pm

    Sky and Karen — how would you define "any"? I always interpret it to mean "more than zero". So

    there's not any money left = there's not more than zero money left

    Same with "hardly" in place of "not". With that interpretation, "It's just that all of it goes before there's any money left for kit" translates to "It's just that all of it goes before there's more than zero money left for kit," which is semantically problematic. It sounds like initially there's no money, and all the money goes before the amount of money exceeds zero.

    To me this has very much a "cannot underestimate" flavor. I don't think speakers are interpreting "any" any differently than anybody else, they're just letting the pragmatics drive the meaning so strongly as to overwhelm the semantic analysis.

  13. dr pepper said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 1:19 am

    In the "kit" example, i think the speaker was conflating:

    "all of it goes to other expenses before we get to kit"

    "by the time we pay for everything else, there's hardly any money left for kit"

  14. Wells Hansen said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 2:35 am

    Unlike others, I am troubled by the kit sentence. For context, I have always lived in Boston.

    I am not troubled as much by the question of negation as I am by how I understand “before” and “until.” Alas, I cannot think of a best correction to bind these two clauses.

    I cannot help but read “I X before state Y” to mean “I do X in advance of the state Y becoming true.”

    “I eat breakfast before the sun rises.” To me, this means that there is no time during my breakfasting when the sun is up.

    That’s where I get stuck. {I spend all my money} is not intended by the speaker to occur before the state {there is any left for kit} becomes true.

    Indeed, the speaker could have bought a suit on pay day.

    Logic allows, “I spend it [all] until there is not any left for kit.” However, this formulation implies a continuous spending, or even volition, that is not, I reckon, intended (or implied) in the original.

    Alternatively, “I spend my money before I have set enough aside for kit,” captures some of the thought, but side-steps the original question.

    I, for one, am not satisfied that “hardly any” solves what I see as the crux of this problem. Even with “hardly any,” substituted for “any,” I want to hear “until.”

    To judge from what others have posted, my head is screwy on this one.

  15. Radek said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 4:12 am

    I'm no expert on this, but perhaps we're witnessing some shift within the Jespersen cycle – a negation-sensitive existential is shifting in its meaning towards a negative existential (remember the fate of the French "pas"). My guess is that the fact that it's happening only in some syntactic limited contexts (in before-/until-clauses), is quite typical of language change.

  16. Mark Liberman said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 8:13 am

    Mark F: … how would you define "any"? …

    It's traditional to observe that there are two basic types of "any": "free choice any" ("pick a card, any card"); and "negative polarity any" ("is there any gravy left?", "we don't have any money", etc.). The negative polarity item "any" (NPI "any") is a quantifier equivalent to some with narrow scope relative to a negation or question in the environment ("it's not the case that we have some money"). But NPI "any" only works if there's a negation, question etc. in the right relationship to it.

    The original example ("The question is, will it end before there's any sharks left") clearly wants to be of the "NPI any" type: "The question is, will it end before it's not the case that there's some sharks left". That would make perfect sense, but the trouble is, there's no environmental negative to play the appropriate role. And if we want to use the question-context to license "any", then the subordinator should be "while" instead of "before", I think: "The question is, will it end while there's (still) some sharks left".

    So there's either one too few negatives, or the wrong time-scale word: a typical context for mis-negation.

  17. Lance said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 9:18 am

    So, I started to note, regarding Wells's:

    I cannot help but read “I X before state Y” to mean “I do X in advance of the state Y becoming true.”

    that there's a familiar (to semanticists) ambiguity in "before" between that sense, and a sense in which Y doesn't come true. A fairly standard illustration: He saw his grandchildren before he died means that he saw his grandchildren and, later, he died; but He died before he saw his grandchildren doesn't mean that he died and, later, he saw his grandchildren; it means he died, and seeing his grandchildren never happened.

    But I'm not sure Wells didn't know that, because he refers specifically to "state Y"; and I think I agree that this latter "before" doesn't work with states. "He died before he learned French" is fine, but "he died before he knew French" is just odd; "I went to Paris before I knew French" is fine, but it means that my knowing French postdates my going to Paris–i.e., that the state of my knowing French did eventually come to hold.

    So what we have here is a perfectly good negative polarity phrase ("I doubt there's any sharks left" means that I believe no sharks are left) and a perfectly good licenser ("Will it end before any sharks die?" asks if, analogous to the latter sentence above, it will end and it's not the case that a shark dies). But something goes wrong when they combine: "Will it end before there's any sharks left?" just fails to mean "Will the following occur: it ends, and it's not the case that there's a shark left?". But given that there are two competing "before"s, two different "any"s, a state ("sharks are left/remain/still exist")…I feel like, at this point, I need a few hours and a bottle of red wine to make sense of this. I can't shake the belief that this really is an error, akin to overnegation, and not some unfamiliar sense of "any". But I got lost in the details before there's any clear explanation.

  18. Russell said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    Mark (L): I could have sworn that an earlier version of the post read "I take it that the authors of these sentences use "any money" to mean …." That's all I was referring to at the top of my comment. But maybe I was temporarily blind.

    [(myl) No, you're right — in re-arranging that sentence in the original version of the post, I left out the "wouldn't", and didn't even notice the mistake until Ran pointed it out. I fixed the body of the post, and added a note in Ran's comment to say that I had done so, but someone else seems to have tidied up the comments and removed both his note and mine. This is how we usually deal with notes about typos, but I think it was a mistake in this case, because it left your comment (and my misunderstanding of it) dangling. Sorry about that. ]

  19. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    To Jay Levitt: "positive anymore" has been much studied. Google on the phrase to get some good references (John Lawler, The Atlas of North American English, etc.). It seems to have started in North America in the "Scots-Irish belt", a Midlands area from western Pennsylvania through Iowa. It has now diffused a bit north, a bit south (into, for instance, Kentucky, which is why you might think of it as Southern), and well to the east (Labov has reports from Philadelphia, for instance). It is, of course, not just regionally, but also socially, distributed (the facts differ from region to region). And, of course, there are scattered occurrences in all sorts of other places.

  20. Peter Fisk said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    But apparently CNN's editors didn't have any problem with it —

    — Why do people outside the news business still assume that everything they see and hear has been vetted by editors?

    [(myl) This wasn't something taken out of the middle of a live interview. In this case, some person or persons, putting together an episode of CNN's "Planet in Peril" series, selected this quotation by Peter Knights to use as the sole lead-in for a good-sized program segment on overfishing of sharks. Maybe "editor" is the wrong word for that person or persons — what would you suggest? ]

  21. Thomas Jack said,

    March 7, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    I just saw this strange specimen: "I do not remember the Prof going over hardly any of this stuff, nor are there hardly any lecture notes based on this chapter."

    Is this the reverse error? Here, is "hardly any" used to mean "any"?

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