Any: Singular and plural nouns

 

Q:

The use of any in front of a singular noun talks about EACH thing or person of a particular type. The use of any in front of a plural noun talks about ALL things or people of a particular type.

What does it exactly mean? Is it correct to use the plural noun in the following sentence "If you have any problems please let me know," to mean any problems, whether one or two or more? The speaker is not thinking of any particular single problem, but problems as a whole. Or in the sentence, "Do you have any pen?," it means any single pen can do. Should we say "any questions"?

Terence
Posted 24 February 2003

A:

In your sentence, "If you have any problems, please let me know," any means one possibility among an infinite number of problems. As you say, the speaker is not thinking of a particular problem, but of one or another, or perhaps more than one. The concept of "each" singular noun contrasted with "all" plural nouns is not relevant here - any can refer to one or to all, to several or to some part of. It can also refer in general to all the members of a class or a group. The general meaning of any, according to Michael Swan (Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1995) is:

Any is a determiner. It generally suggests an indefinite amount or number, and is used when it is not important to say how much/ how many we are thinking of. Because of its "open," non-specific meaning, any is often used in questions and negative clauses and in other cases where there is an idea of doubt or negation (p. 48).
The sentence, "Do you have any pen?" is not native. Any, as you know, is often used in questions and in negative sentences, but usually with plural count nouns or with noncount nouns:
Do you have any children?
Are there any penguins at the North Pole?
Do you have any questions?

We don't have any children.
There aren't any penguins at the North Pole.
I don't have any questions.
When any appears with a singular noun, it can appear in an affirmative sentence, as described here by Swan (p. 50):

Any can be used to emphasise the idea of free choice, with the meaning of "it doesn't matter who/which/what." With this meaning, any is common in affirmative clauses as well as questions and negatives, and is often used with singular countable nouns as well as uncountables and plurals. In speech it is stressed.

Ask any doctor - they'll all tell you that alcohol is a poison.
She goes out with any boy who asks her.
"When shall I come?" "Any time."
Can I get a meal here at any time of the day?
I don't do just any work - I choose the jobs that interest me.

Swan also says (p. 49):

Any is very often used with uncountable and plural nouns. It can have the same kind of meaning as the indefinite article a/an has with singular countable nouns:

I haven't got a car, and I haven't got any money to buy one. Is there a tin-opener in the house? And are there any plates?

With this meaning, any is unusual with singular countable nouns.

She hasn't got a job. (NOT: She hasn't got any job.)
Do you know a good doctor?
(NOT: Do you know any good doctor?)

With this explanation, you can see that your sentence, "Do you have any pen?" should be, instead:

Do you have a pen?

Your sentence: "Do you have any questions?" is correctly formed.

To read a related message, see Any + singular or plural noun?

 

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