What is the difference between assertive and non-assertive words?

I haven't been able to find an answer in my online linguistics sources such as the SIL Glossary of Linguistics Terms.

The only source I could find was an English Grammar site, namely http://www.englishgrammar.org/nonassertive-words/#mjsDTl7shKvqoAB0.99

This source states that assertive words are generally used in declarative sentences.

Examples of assertive words include "some, once, already, somebody, something, sometimes, somewhere, someone."

The source also explains that non-assertive words are used " in questions and negatives. They are also used in if-clauses and with adverbs, adjectives, verbs, prepositions and determiners that have a negative meaning."

Examples of non-assertive words include "any, anything, anybody, ever, & yet."

However, as I read the source, I wasn't able to determine exactly what the semantic or pragmatic difference between assertive and non-assertive words is. I'm hoping that someone can spell this out for me, and/or recommend a source that explains the difference.

Also, the link provides an example is given of an assertive word used in a question, namely "Did you want something? (Suggests ‘I think you want something’."

  • Where have you seen these terms used? Please provide some context.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 12, 2014 at 23:37
  • I first ran across these terms in a book called "A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English" by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum. Aug 13, 2014 at 4:20
  • Well can you give us some quotes from it? He might be using them in a completely different way than that website.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 13, 2014 at 4:22
  • 2
    "We need to see a further similarity between questions and negations. Let us call a sentence such as “He offered her some chocolates” as an assertion. Now, a sentence can be non-assertive in one of two ways: by being negative or by being a question. We do not therefore have two independent systems ... positive:negative declarative:interrogative ... but rather an interrelated system in which assertion involves both ‘positive’ and ‘declarative’ while non-assertion has a subsystem either ‘negative’ or ‘interrogative’.” (Quirk and Greenbaum, p. 24) Aug 13, 2014 at 4:38

3 Answers 3


Unfortunately, you have been misled.
(BTW, misled is the past form of mislead)

The "English grammar" site that you have been looking at is, in a word, junk. It's full of incorrect and misleading information; it seems to be just one person's ideas, most of which are, alas, not very useful or helpful, since the person is not a professional.

At least in terms of grammar. The punctuation and creative writing parts may be of some use, but
I doubt it. Anybody who doesn't know that English grammar has nothing to do with English punctuation is hardly qualified to give advice on either. Online information that is free is often worth what it costs.

As @robert points out, the correct term for what the site (but noone else) calls "non-assertive words"
is Negative Polarity Items (NPIs). They are the special, idiomatic cases. The other set of words, which the site (but, again, noone else) calls "assertive words"

some, once, already, somebody, something, sometimes, somewhere, someone

are in fact variations on the quantifier some, plus a couple of temporal adverbs (once and already).
These words frequently alternate with NPIs in negative contexts, including questions and if-clauses.

Negation is a very complex subject, and whenever there is a negative word or two in a sentence --
especially if there is also a quantifier or two in the sentence -- there will be strange grammar.

Executive summary:
  1. Don't believe everything you read.
  2. Don't trust anything about "grammar" on that "grammar site".
  3. Don't use their terminology, either; they manufacture names from ignorance.
  4. Learn something about negation, which means learning something about logic and syntax.

  • This is a great answer! It's also perhaps worth mentioning that, at the very least "some", "somebody" and "someone", are often described as Positive Polarity Items (PPIs), i.e. they can't be interpreted within the scope of negation. "John doesn't like someone" can only mean, 'there is someone, s.t. John doesn't like them', it can't mean: 'it's not the case that there is someone, s.t. John likes them'.
    – P Elliott
    Mar 13, 2015 at 1:02
  • Some isn't exactly positive polarity; it can appear in many Negative contexts, like questions and hypotheticals. Negation is a different thing from assertion. Mar 13, 2015 at 1:58
  • I see your point; I'm just following some of the established lit. in calling these PPIs (files.nyu.edu/as109/public/szabolcsi_PPI_NPI_NLLT.pdf). It's true that PPIs aren't de-licensed in all the environments where NPIs are licensed.
    – P Elliott
    Mar 15, 2015 at 14:13
  • TThat's a very interesting paper. NPIs are such a variegated bunch that one is almost never surprised by some new oddity; this might help in categorization. Mar 15, 2015 at 15:39

Other terms for assertive and non-assertive in this context are realis and irrealis as well as positive and negative polarity.

When using some, somebody etc. the existence of the entity in question is asserted.

There is somebody hiding behind the box means that the speaker assumes that there is a person hiding there, although they are not aware who it is. The existence of the person is real/realis. By contrast, Is there anybody behind the box? does not make the assertion, but simply raises the possibility. The existence of the person is hypothetical/irrealis. The same is true of negation: There isn't anybody behind the box.

A complication arises from the fact that, as you mentioned, assertive words can sometimes be used in questions or negated contexts. We can, for example, contrast:

  1. Is there anybody behind the box?
  2. Is there somebody behind the box?

Of these two, 1) is the more usual, or unmarked way of phrasing the question. 2) is special, in that the speaker assumes the answer to the question might by yes, and is perhaps troubled by the fact (such as in a horror movie).

Non-assertive words can also be used in assertive contexts, but this is again marked and used for a particular effect:

There must be something we can do. I would do anything to help him!

Assertive something is the default choice and asserts that there is an action that might be appropriate. Anything is marked in this assertive context and stresses the emotional involvement of the speaker and the force of the statement.

  • But Anybody can do this is clearly assertive and realis without being marked. Someone can do this has a very different (and marked) meaning.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 12, 2014 at 23:39
  • Yes, except that in the usual formulation, some forms presuppose existence rather than asserting it.
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 12, 2015 at 16:59

I found an answer to your question here:


Best wishes :)

  • 1
    Welcome to the Linguistics Stack Exchange. Link-only answers are discouraged here. People looking for answers to the above question should find the answer here. If you wish, you can quote the relevant bits of the answer, and then provide the link.
    – prash
    Mar 23, 2020 at 9:34

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