"I don't think anybody saw it coming."

I assume that this sentence means that the speaker thinks nobody saw it coming, but can't this pattern "I don't think anybody X" be took as "I think that not everybody X (but I think some X,)" in some context?

In other words, do you always take the example sentence I quoted from this article as "I think nobody saw it coming," not as "I think not everybody saw it coming, but I believe some did at least?"

  • Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. – NVZ Feb 8 '17 at 16:02
  • 2
    You could wrangle a partial negation from it by arguing that it is hyperbole or that the speaker lacks complete information, but on a straightforward reading, it's a complete negation. – Lawrence Feb 8 '17 at 16:06
  • To answer the final question, Yes: " not ... anybody" is always the same as "nobody"; it is never "somebody". – Hellion Feb 8 '17 at 17:15

No, that's not the way it works.

First, anybody here is a Negative Polarity Item, triggered by the negative in don't think. So it's just part of the machinery, a constant X set to zero. Putting it there as the subject of the complement clause links the clause to the negative in the higher clause, which leads to the next point.

Let's dispose of the any and just substitute a noun to illustrate the structures, OK?

Second, think is what's called a Negative-Raising verb, like believe (but unlike know or claim). Neg-Raising is the phenomenon that relates (for instance)

  • Bill thinks that Mike is not coming.


  • Bill does not think that Mike is coming.

The negation of think in the first is intended and interpreted as a negation of be coming, as in the second. So the two sentences are synonymous. Neg-Raising is governed by think, and believe, but not by know or claim, since the second examples are not synonymous:

  • Bill doesn't think/believe Mike is coming. = Bill thinks/believes Mike isn't coming.


  • Bill doesn't know/claim Mike is coming. Bill knows/claims Mike isn't coming.

This is the more normal situation; Neg-Raising is a minor rule, governed by only a few mental predicates. We say that these predicates are "transparent to negation", since a reading of outside negation with think or believe (like there is with know and claim) is very hard to produce, and generally requires very careful stress, intonation, and rhythm to accomplish successfully.

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