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Consider the sentence [emphasis mine]:

Foreign producers cannot sell all commodities at lower prices than domestic producers for any length of time because the depreciation (or pressures for depreciation) of the importing country’s currency ensures that trade will flow in both directions.

Intuitively, the sentence should mean that foreign producers can never sell commodities at lower prices than domestic producers, because even one day is "a length of time," and the sentence asserts that it cannot happen for any length of time. Of course, that's not what it's actually saying. A more literal phrasing would be "for a very long time" or "for any great length of time."

This interpretation of "any quantity of X" does not carry over to other values of X. For instance,

I would not sell that to you for any amount of money.

means exactly what it looks like it means: that any quantity of money, either very low or very high, is not appropriate.

So my question is, where does this strange use of "any length of time" come from, and are there any other things besides time to which it applies?

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Sometimes I think that phrases like this are just "filler" because to me they're meaningless (although "for any length of time" may imply that a finite time-limit must always be placed on attempts to sell) -- I agree with you that these phrases could just be eliminated and the overall message would still be the same. –  Randolf Richardson Aug 7 '11 at 21:32
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Where is your first sentence from? I'd be interested to read the context. –  simchona Aug 7 '11 at 21:33
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@simchona: it's from my course notes in a macroeconomics course :) –  Adrian Petrescu Aug 7 '11 at 21:34
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@Adrian -- Darn. I was going to say, though, that if you search "for any length of time" one of the hits says that you could insert 'reasonable' (reasonable length of time). Not really an answer, though. –  simchona Aug 7 '11 at 21:36
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@simchona Yup, I get the meaning; I'm just not sure why "any length of time" and "any amount of money" have almost opposite meanings, despite how analogous they look. –  Adrian Petrescu Aug 7 '11 at 21:39

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

This isn't restricted to "any length of time." Googling, you can see that most uses for any distance mean any distance at all, but sometimes you get constructions like:

If you need to carry your laptop case for any distance ...

where it means any substantial distance. You have to distinguish between these two meanings by context. It just seems that any length of time almost always means any substantial length of time, where any amount of money almost always means any amount of money at all. I suspect that once most uses of any length of time started meaning any substantial length of time, people were more likely to use the phrase this way.

With some searching, you can find cases where any takes the opposite of the usual meaning in the phrases any amount of money and any length of time. For example

It's difficult to convince people to pay for stuff, especially if it costs any amount of money.

and

A great place to stay for any length of time!

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I guess "any" belongs to that list of self-antonyms, since the two possible interpretations in my sentence above result in almost 180-degree turns in meaning :) –  Adrian Petrescu Aug 8 '11 at 1:26
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Context matters. "for any amount of money" and "for any distance" are different. In the first case, the money is the benefit, in the second, the distance is the cost. Nobody would sell you something for $1 but refuse if you gave them $10. But each additional step walked carrying that laptop case burdens the user more and more. Clearly, the context spells out the difference. Nobody cares how heavy an item is if they only ever move it 2 inches at a time. Nobody cares if a seller can sell something for 10 minutes. Selling for a long time is what matters. Moving something far is what matters. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 8 '11 at 12:19

The word any can have different meanings depending on how it's used, from "more than nothing" to "every". The meaning of any in this case is not "an undefined", but rater "an extended".

An example of the meaning can be found here: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/any

appreciably large or extended "could not endure it any length of time"

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I think existing answers are over-complicating the interpretation of any here. There's no real need to assume some implied word like "great" following it - just take the phrase any length of time at face value.

Any... here simply means any particular length of time you care to specify (effectively, any one of "all"). In the context of the preceding negation, the sentence asserts that producers can't sell for any such period, only some. Presumably all readers will appreciate that periods qualifying as some there will (mostly) be the shorter ones.

There's a consumer protection law relating to price stickers such as 50% off previous price in the UK, whereby traders are not to make this claim if that previous price was only charged for, say, a couple of days. It would be perfectly possible for a Trading Standards official to say to the trader...

You can't say that about a price charged for any length of time - it has to have applied for at least four weeks.

In that context, any would exclude the shorter periods, not the longer ones.

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How would this analysis handle the sentence I found?--"It's difficult to convince people to pay for stuff, especially if it costs any amount of money." If you say "any amount of money" really means "any" here, then the second clause is essentially totally meaningless (you can't pay for free stuff). –  Peter Shor Aug 8 '11 at 18:49
    
No, the expression "any length of time" doesn't mean "one of all possible lengths of time". Your example about discount rules is only confusing because you can only refer to the previous price if it has been charged for any length of time, i.e. a time that is appreciably large in the context. –  Guffa Aug 8 '11 at 20:24
    
@Peter Shor: By my lights, your example implicitly excludes "free stuff" from the "any amounts", of which some would in fact be acceptable (only the very low ones, I admit, but still some of all possible amounts). No different to my examples excluding zero-length or infinite times, really. –  FumbleFingers Aug 8 '11 at 22:56
    
@Guffa: It looks like you start by telling me I'm wrong, then just repeat my position back at me. –  FumbleFingers Aug 8 '11 at 22:58
    
@FumbleFingers: I don't think so. Try to read it again. –  Guffa Aug 9 '11 at 4:55

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