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Why is it that any cannot be used as subject in negative sentences, while no can?

An example pair of sentences might be:

No children came.

Any children didn't come.


Please note that the following questions, which have been linked to this one as a basis for closing it, are spectacular in their inaptness:

A question about the 'polarity sensitive' any

Use of “ever” in non-negated sentence

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    "Don't any keys fit the lock?"
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 16:02
  • @Greybeard Polar questions are not negative or positive sentences in any meaningful way. Polar questions essentially have no polarity. Notice that the answer to a polar question is the same regardless of whether it is the "negative" or "positive" version. Polar questions are weird beasts! Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 17:47
  • What an interesting question! I think this has to do with the idea of negative "scope". I think @John Lawler might come to your rescue here! Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 17:51
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    OK. But remember, you asked. Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 18:15
  • 1
    Going to get anticipatory popcorn. Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 19:11

1 Answer 1

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First, the question is out of left field. The ungrammaticality of

  • *Any children didn't come

doesn't have a thing to do with subjects. It has to do with how one uses the word any,
which is rather a complex subject.

There are at least two English words any:

  1. Free-Choice any, as in Pick a number -- any number, or Anybody can do that.
    Free-choice any can be a subject, but it usually occurs with a modal like can or able.
    It's a special term with a special grammar and meaning, basically "Choose one".

  2. Negative Polarity any. This is by far the most common use of any, and it (and all its compounds like anybody, anyone, anywhere, etc.) is a Negative Polarity Item. That means it can only be used grammatically inside the scope of a semantic negative trigger. These include negatives, questions, and a lot of idiomatic constructions.

Negative polarity items are determined by removing negative triggers and seeing whether the NPI is still grammatical. E.g, the boldface NPIs below:

  • I haven't ever been there. ~ *I have/I've ever been there
  • She hasn't been here in weeks ~ *She has/She's been here in weeks
  • He doesn't have any assistants. ~ *He has any assistants
  • This shouldn't take long. ~ *This should take long

Questions are negative environments, as it happens, so NPIs can occur there,

  • Have you ever been there?
  • Does he have any assistants?
  • Will this take long?

even as subjects.

  • Is anybody else coming?

So, since NPIs have to occur with negatives, the reason why *Any children didn't come is ungrammatical is because any isn't in the scope of a negative trigger. Not any children would be clunky but grammatical, though No children is better. There's also upstairs negation, as in

  • It's not true that any children came.
  • I don't think that any children came.
  • He didn't claim that any children came.

where the negative in the main clause licenses the any in the complement clause.

tl;dr -- If a sentence sounds odd, see if there's a negative in it, or whether adding negation makes it better.

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    Popcorn optional Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 19:01
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    Any is not within the scope of negative didn't because it occurs outside of the negative verb phrase, right - i.e. higher up? [[Any children] [didn't come]]. Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 19:37
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    Yeah, that's what I'd say. Typically the negative precedes the NPI, but scope is not a matter of position. Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 19:40
  • Thank you for the comprehensive answer, is there an easy way of figuring out the "stairness" of the two verb phrases? Is it the "that" before the complement clauses in your examples? Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 8:28
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    I like how this answer really shows that English, in not using negative concordance like "He didn't have none", is in fact much more complicated and confusing because of it. Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 18:10

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