He will not say anything to keep his job

Heard on the radio this morning. A British politician has just resigned from the shadow cabinet over a disagreement with his party leader. An interview asked another member of the party why the person had resigned. The interviewee responded that “He will not say anything to keep his job”.

That comment was interesting, if only linguistically. It is ambiguous because anything could be interpreted in either of two different ways: as a negative polarity item or as a free choice item.

Anything as a negative polarity item

The most common use of anything is as a negative polarity item. This means that it can be used only in negative contexts (and some other similar contexts). To illustrate what this means, consider the following sentences:

  • S1. They must do something.
  • S2. They must not do anything.

In sentence S1, something appears in a positive context. Sentence S2 shows that one way of forming a negative version of S1 is to replace something with the pair of words not … anything. S2 means something like “They must do no thing”. (In fact, another way to convey the same meaning as S2 is to say They must do nothing.)

In this sense of no thing, anything does not convey a negative meaning by itself; it does so only when it appears in a context that supplies the negative element. In S2, not is that negative element.

Without that negative element, They must do anything would not convey a negative meaning.

Anything as free choice

A second (and probably less common use) for anything is as a free choice, meaning something like anything you choose or anything, no matter what. For example, consider the following sentences

  • S3. Pick any thing that you like.
  • S4. Pick anything.

Any in S3 and anything in S4 are being used here in a positive context as a kind of emphatic version of some or something.

I said above that They must do anything would not convey a negative meaning. Anything could perhaps be interpreted as a free choice item, though I can’t of a plausible context that would give the whole sentence a meaning. But one sentence that does contain anything as a free choice item and certainly does have a clear meaning is They can do anything.

What did the interviewee mean?

In the sentence I quoted, the interviewee was using anything as a free choice item. The intended meaning was something like:

  • Some people will say anything (no matter what) just to keep their job. The person who resigned is not one of those people.

But the sentence quoted was ambiguous. It could also have been using anything as a negative polarity item, meaning something like:

  • There is nothing the person would say in order to keep their job.

Listening live, it was in fact clear that the interviewee intended the free choice reading. Partly, this was because of the context, but also partly because of the speaker’s rhythm and stress. This would have been much less clear on the written page, and especially without the full context.

More on negative polarity items

I have said above that negative polarity items appear only in negative contexts. That is an over-simplification. They appear in some other contexts, such as some questions, some expressions involving doubt and some conditional phrases. That’s too big a topic to write about in this post.

Watch out for negatives in writing and editing

The sentence that spurred me to write this post contains just one small example of a theme that is pervasive in writing and editing: often, placing a negative item in a sentence creates ambiguity or destroys the logic of the sentence. Getting this right needs very careful attention.

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