Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

If I Get Any, I Get Any

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2006

A couple of months ago, police finally tracked down a prisoner who had escaped almost three months earlier from a jail in Chillicothe (where I once taught a linguistics class, about 90 minutes south of Columbus). Now the question is which of the various tipsters that led police to capture the escapee will receive what amount of reward money. An article in yesterday’s paper concludes with a quotation from one civic-minded truck driver who phoned in a tip and doesn’t really care about the reward money. The article said:

“If I get any, I get any,” [Travis] Woods said. “If I don’t, I don’t. I did my part by calling. The guy was wanted, and that’s why I did it. It was the right thing.”
(Kelly Hassett, “Hunter who found escapee’s hut gets first cut of reward,” The Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 14, 2006, p. D3)

I put the whole quotation in because I think it’s admirable, but the part I’m interested in linguistically is the first sentence, an example of the template If X, then X. Yes, I know it’s tautologous, and that’s not a problem. What happened here is that Woods started out saying, “If I get any.” Any (as a so-called negative polarity item) usually has to appear in a context with a negation (He’ll never get any, No one gets any), question (Did he get any?), or conditional (If I get any), so there’s no problem yet. (Confusing the matter is the fact that any also has a “free choice” sense, as in Anything can happen, which is not subject to these restrictions. We’re just talking about any meaning “some amount”.) But when Woods repeats “I get any” in part two of the template, it sounds weird, because there’s no negation, question, or conditional there.

What could he have said that wouldn’t have this problem? If I get any, I get some? No, that sounds weird, too. How about If I get some, I get some? That works. Out of context, of course, he seems to be saying he doesn’t care one way or the other whether he gets laid, but in context it’s fine.

So what’s the difference between If I get any and If I get some? It’s easier to nail down in a question: Do you want anything? could be answered yes or no equally probably. Do you want something? gives the impression that the speaker thinks the answer is more likely yes than no. Why is this, and how does it extend to If I get some/any? At this point, I defer to semanticists who have studied negative polarity items a lot more than I have.

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2 Responses to “If I Get Any, I Get Any”

  1. Russell said

    I am not one of those semanticists, but Robin Lakoff once was; and she has another fun-titled paper called “Some reasons why there can’t be any some-any rule”, in which she discusses exactly what she things the difference is (though, iirc, not precisely WHY there should be such a difference).

    Within that paper, though, is a hilarious contrast that I wish had been brought up in my intro to syn/sem class:

    * John never does something.
    * John never does something until I ask him to sweep the floor.
    John never does something before/until I ask him to do it.
    * John never does something after I ask him to do it.

    (hmm… on further thought, there is the lexical item “get some”, which is probably worth avoiding on semantic grounds if you can help it)

  2. […] line in the chorus: “Who made you king of anything?” Bait and switch! This is negative polarity anything! I even considered blogging about it at the time, but never got around to […]

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