February 14, 2005

Any Time At All

While I was thinking about the NPI post, I noticed that the usage of "any" seems to be a mess. Compare these two sentences:

(1) I'll take any road.
(2) I took any road.

It seems to me that (1) is obviously OK, and (2) is obviously wrong. I can't even tell what (2) would mean.

From the first few pages of the Google search, "took any" seems to occur only in NPI-licensing contexts, whereas "take any" appears in 'will take any unwanted corn snakes, which is not I think NPI-licensing. For instance,

(3) I will ever take unwanted corn snakes

seems wrong (unless 'ever' is being used archaically). And that disturbs me. Why should changing the tense change the acceptability of "any"? Unless (1) is actually a habitual tense, which would make a difference.

Anyway, Kai von Fintel has just posted a link to a Larry Horn paper on "any," which I'm sure is required reading for anyone who wants to think about this seriously. So--no thinking about this seriously unless and until I read Horn's paper.

[UPDATE: Yep, Horn's paper explains the difference between (1) and (2). From footnote 2, on p. 5:

Haspelmath... notes (1993: 52-55) that free-choice indefinites tend to be prosodically prominent and are invariably (as opposed to the corresponding ordinary some-series indefinites) non-specific; it is when the non-specifics are contextually ruled out (as in past perfectives or present progressives) that FC any and its cross-linguistic analogues are generally impossible. [Haspelmath 1993 = A Typological Study of Indefinite Pronouns. PhD dissertation, Freie Universitšt Berlin.]

If I've got the terminology right, (2) is a past perfective, and it rules out any because you can't have taken a non-specific road; if you take a road, there must be some road you've taken. (Or is "I've taken..." the past perfective? It may be that (2) is acceptable when it's meant habitually: "[When I was on the bum] I took any road [that I found myself on].")

Anyway, this also explains why the present progressive (4) is bad:

(4) I'm taking any road.

Again, there must be one specific road that you're taking. Though again it seems to me that you can make FC any acceptable in present progressive when it has a habitual reading:

(5) At this point in my life, I'm joining any club that will have me as a member.

Any road, you can take this post as a pointer to interesting stuff rather than anything original. That's a good way to take most of my linguistics posts.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 14, 2005 04:05 PM

The anymal (sorry for the pun) in (1) is known as "free choice any" and Horn's paper indeed canvasses the approaches to it and its relation to the negative polarity "any".

"Ever" does not have a free-choice sibling, so (3) is garbage because of that.

Posted by: Kai von Fintel at February 15, 2005 07:29 AM

Yep, what was confusing me was that I was thinking of FC "any" as a universal quantifier, but (1) isn't quite "I'll take every road." Horn's paper disabused me of that.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at February 15, 2005 09:58 AM

"This web of time - the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries - embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom."

"In any and in all of them," I enunciated, with a tremor in my voice. "I deeply appreciate and am grateful to you for the restoration of Ts'ui Pen's garden."

"Not in all," he murmured with a smile. "Time is
forever dividing itself toward innumerable futures and in one of them I am your enemy."

-- The Forest of Branching Roads

Posted by: George Lewis Borges at February 16, 2005 02:32 AM