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I have seen "is “any” also used with plurals", which explains that any can be used with singular, plural, and uncountable nouns.

However, I want to ask specifically about questions. E.g.:

Is there any girl in the room?

To me it seems that this is asking, "is there at least one girl?". But my English grammar book says that any should only be used with uncountable or plural nouns. So I suppose I should be asking either of the following instead:

  • Is there a girl in the room?
  • Are there any girls in the room?

Is that true? Is the textbook correct in saying that any should not be used with countable nouns in singular? Then what about "Do you have any idea"? Idea is countable, just like girl is.

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2 Answers

Your textbook is generally correct. However, the case of "do you have any idea?" is a specific, accustomed-usage-formed exception to that rule. English has a lot of those.

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Like most pedagogical grammars, your book gives simplified advice that does not reflect the complexity of English as it is actually used.

The key point here is not whether the noun is countable or not but whether it is countable and concrete or countable and abstract. If the noun is a concrete noun such as girl then it is probably better to say: Is there a girl in the room? or Are there any girls in the room?

Constructions such as:

  • Is there any girl in the room?
  • Is there any dog on the street?
  • Did you borrow any book from the library?

may be considered suspect by some careful grammarians.

However, there are many countable but abstract nouns where any is perfectly acceptable:

  • Is there any difference between .. ?
  • Is there any way I can .. ?
  • Is there any reason why .. ?
  • Is there any chance .. ?
  • Is there any need to .. ?
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Questions are natural (but not obligatory) Negative Polarity environments, so use of any is usually optional in them, and therefore has additional consequences. A good place to start looking for these consequences is Robin Lakoff's paper "Some Reasons Why There Can't Be Any Some-Any Rule", Language 45.3:608-615 Sept 1969. –  John Lawler Apr 9 '12 at 19:51
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@John Lawler, Thanks for pointing me to this article. As Lakoff concludes: "* ... the distribution of some and any depends not merely on relatively superficial syntactic information (negatives, questions, etc.), but also on presuppositions, which may have no other overt syntactic reflex." Of course, such nuanced grammatical discussions don't usually find their way into pedagogic grammars, which is presumably why the OP is struggling to reconcile the rules he has read with the reality of the English he experiences. –  Shoe Apr 10 '12 at 6:29
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