Signs o’ the times – some/any invariant meanings and COCA

I am glad to be writing this particular (rushed, see end) post as it involves corpus linguistics and I have not done such a post for a while. It is also about my current interest – Columbia School linguistics.

I have been over the years less enamored of the power of corpus linguistics for language teaching. It is certainly very useful to access descriptions of language but that is not enough. Explanations are also needed. Columbia School (CS) linguistics is about analyzing invariant meanings that motivate choices in both grammar and lexis. It is about one form to one meaning mappings – an ideal aim when looking to help students.

Nadav Sabar in 2016 analyses the use of some and any. The following borrows heavily from this paper.

Most pedagogical grammars state (formal) rules such as “any is used in negative sentences and not in affirmative statements”. Yet such rules cannot account for why some is used in contexts that are said to be used for any. Sabar gives the following attested example:

1) When Yvonne lived in Italy, where it seems like the whole country is married, people always wanted to know about her personal life. I remember her telling me that every time she’d come back from a great vacation, the first question from married friends was, “Did you meet anybody?” It was as if the whole point of going on vacation was to meet someone. That she had a great time and saw something new and interesting didn’t matter. The entire vacation was cancelled or a flop because she didn’t meet someone. (

Formal accounts could only say that any is also acceptable as in she didn’t meet anyone and is unconcerned with why the writer chose some in this case.

Formal accounts use the sentence as unit of analysis and see meaning as compositional – i.e. the meanings of individual words in a sentence add to the whole. CS uses signs (pairing of symbol to meaning) as the unit of analysis and sees meaning as instrumental rather than compositional. That is the individual meanings of signals need not add up to sentence meaning. There is a distinction between linguistic code that has an invariant meaning (that always corresponds to a linguistic signal) and interpretation of the code which is the subjective outcome of messages. Meanings are very sparse in that they do not encode messages but only offer prompts that may only suggest message elements.

The meaning hypothesis of some and any are shown below:

I.e. some as RESTRICTED suggests limits, internal divisions, boundaries while any as UNRESTRICTED suggests no boundaries, limits or divisions. Note that this does not mean that the domain in question in reality has no divisions or boundaries. Just that the reality is irrelevant to the message. Also note that in a pedagogical grammar such as Martin Parrott’s this meaning division between restricted and unrestricted is only described for stressed SOME and ANY.

Sabar uses the following as examples:

2) If you see something, say something. (New York City public safety slogan)
3) No parking any time (street sign)

In 2) some is used because the message suggested is a restriction on the set of things people see and say. The context drives the inference as to the nature of the restriction – suspicious looking things. Any could also have been used but that would not have been as effective a message – any would have suggested no restriction i.e. people should call no matter what they see.

Similarly in 3) any is used because there is no restriction on the domain of times of the day.

So now for 1) we can see some is used because the message suggests a restriction of the set of people Yvonne did not meet, and the context shows that this restriction as people who may qualify as marriage potential.

Now the interesting corpus linguistics part.

The methodology of CS first involves a qualitative step where some aspect of the sign in question is looked at. So for some which suggests restriction another element which suggests the same is looked for:

4) Some Feds [Federal workers] are held up as national heroes while others are considered a national joke. (ABC Nightline: Income Tax)

Here others is used to refer to a different subset of people within the domain of Federal workers. This message element is also suggested by some – RESTRICTED. This does not mean there is only one reason for the choice of these forms rather that this message feature of internal division is one reason out of many possible reasons that has motivated the choice of these two forms.

To test this claim generally we can look at a corpus to see if there is a higher than probable chance that others occurs with some more than others occurs with any.

We can do this in COCA by using these search terms:

COCA searches for others:

Favoured Disfavoured
some [up to 9 slots] others any [up to 9 slots] others

The following screenshot shows how to find some [up to 9 slots] others (do similar for any):

To find some with not others see the next screenshot (i.e. use the minus sign -):

And tabulating the data in a contingency table:

others present others absent
N % N %
some 19078 90 8946046 65
any 2022 10 4841946 35
Total 21100 100 13787992 100

p < .0001

The table percentages and significance test supports the claim that there is one message feature that motivates use of both some and others. Note that the meaning hypothesis itself is not directly tested; it is only indirectly tested via the counts in COCA. Sabar goes onto to test both qualitatively and quantitatively other signals that contribute to the meaning hypothesis of some – RESTRICTED and any – UNRESTRICTED.

I wondered how the singular other would distribute with any and some:

other present other absent
N % N %
any 39244 52 4811937 35
some 35175 48 8930621 65
Total 74419 100 13742558 100

p < .0001

Here can we say that singular other contributes to a message meaning of unrestricted? I have no idea as I have not had time to explore this further!

I hope dear reader you forgive the rushed nature of this post but I wanted to get something up before the risk of forgetting this due to holiday haze!

Thanks for indulging.

Update 1:

Thanks to heads up from some tweeters Michael Lewis in his book The English Verb in 1986 was also pointing to the primacy of meaning:

Update 2:

Nadav Sabar has pointed out that he looked for others in one direction i.e. following some/any whereas I looked at occurrence of others both following and before some/any.
Plus in a new version of his paper a window size of 2 is used instead of 9.


Parrott, M. (2000). Grammar for English language teachers: with exercises and a key. Cambridge University Press.

Sabar, N. (2016). Using big data to test meaning hypotheses for any and some. In Otheguy, R., Stern, N., Reid, W. and Ruggles, J. (Eds.) Columbia School linguistics in the 21st century: advances in sign-based linguistics. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. Retrieved from []


Corpus linguistics community news 8

First up is the news that there are more than 700 members. Nice.

Important date for your diaries is 25 September 2017 when another round of #corpusmooc is launching. This time new sections are promised and most notable new addition is a new version of LancsBox. Check out the following two cute vids being used to promote #corpusmooc 2017:


Also if you use Twitter you can follow the bot corpusmoocRT@corpusmoocFav.

Next up are some great plenary videos from this years Corpus Linguistics 2017 knees-up in Birmingham plus related notes from conference by John Williams.

Checking the distribution of the pair on the one hand/on the other hand in BYU-COCA sections.

A graphic trying to depict keywords as calculated in AntConc.

A possible way to find collocations suitable for various proficiency levels.

And finally for a bit o’ fun is this the longest term in ELT? And The Banbury Corpus Revisted by Michael Swan.

Thanks for reading and for those coming off a summer break much energy to you for the new teaching year.


Coming up in BYU-COCA, mini-interview with Prof. Mark Davies

I had the great pleasure to be able to put 4 questions to Professor Mark Davies about the BYU corpora tools and the upcoming changes (

1. Would you share what you think are interesting site user statistics?

There’s some good data at; let me know if you have questions about any of that.

2. What is the motivation behind the upcoming user interface changes?

The main thing is to have an interface that works well on laptops/desktops, as well as tablets, as well as mobile devices (cell phones, etc). More and more people are connecting to websites that work well as they are on-the-go with mobile devices, and the current corpus interface doesn’t work well for that.

3. Any chance of screenshot previews of the upcoming user interface?

Please see attached. As you can see, each of the four main “pages” — search, results, KWIC, and help — are in their own “page”, which takes up the whole screen. Users click on the tabs at the top of the page to move between these (just as they would click on the different “frames” in the existing interface). But because each “page” takes up the entire page, it will still work fine with cell phones, for example (where frames don’t work well at all).

The other cool thing in the new interface is the ability to create and use “virtual corpora” (see for their implementation in Wikipedia corpus, using the current interface).


4. One tweeter (@cainesap) was wondering in what register would cat pictures go in the web genre corpus?

🙂 🙂 Good question. See the core.png file attached 🙂


The first screenshot indicates the new interface looks much cleaner and easier to use from mobiles devices and as a bonus my ebook – Quick Cups of COCA won’t be needing too much change for the new edition : )

Thanks to Professor Davies for taking time to answer this mini-interview and to you for reading.

Bonus Questions!

5. Do the search results screens stay the same as now?

Pretty similar; yes.

6. Still a mystery where cat pics and graphical memes, animated gifs go? : )​

This and many other equally profound questions can be answered with the new corpus :-).