I've learned that we use "someone" when in affirmative sentence and "anyone" when in negative or question sentence.

Altough, I saw a lot of results in google for the sentence "how can ANYONE".

So what is right?

  • 2
    Either can be used, depending on the emphasis and shades of meaning you want. – Hot Licks Mar 7 '15 at 1:57
  • Yes. Questions (and hypothetical clauses, and comparatives, and many other constructions) can trigger negative polarity items. But they don't have to. A question has, in its simplest case -- the Yes/No question -- two propositions in mind, one positive and one negative, and either can be emphasized by word choices of the speaker. Negation is an operator, (and btw, so are modals like can), and operators have foci -- those constituents of the sentence that are being negated (or in the case of can, enabled), which would normally be stressed in speech. It's writing that's the problem. – John Lawler Mar 7 '15 at 3:09

The use of "How can anyone...(whatever)..." more emphatically implies the belief that there is no one (universally) who can ...(whatever)...

This is consistent with the rule that you provided.


It depends on the context and I reckon that you have been given a good rule.

The negative question is easy to grasp.

"Honestly, how can anyone sit through an entire episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show without changing the TV channel?"

Here the speaker is implying that The Jeremy Kyle Show is not good. The speaker rates the show so lowly that she cannot imagine anyone on Earth sitting through a full episode without changing channel on her TV.

Google is likely picking up on the world wide negativity of people and their attraction to offload their opinions onto the Internet.


In addition to negatives and questions, any forms are also used in generalizations. "Anyone knows how to parse sentences." "Anyone who knows how to parse sentences also knows how to tame boa constrictors." "I like any kind of beer." "If anyone is about to leave, please warn me."

This extension from negatives to generalizations might be thought related to logicians' translation of material implication 'if p then q' as 'not p or q'. Since generalizations restricted to a domain require an implication to express, and implication involves a negation, maybe that's why a generalization allows an any form.


"How can anyone ..." implies that you don't care about who "anyone" is. "How can someone ...", on the other hand, identifies a specific person, and hence is useful in a sentence like "How can someone who can boil water not know how to fix a can of soup?"

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