Grammar mishaps: Anything vs. everything vs. something

A tutorial on how and when to use these three words.

Anything, everything and something play so many roles in the English language, I sometimes think of them as members of a small acting troupe. They can display endless versatility, depending on the context in which they’re used.

Anything is a pronoun that can refer to any object, event or matter. You’ll use it when you’re unable to be specific or have no intention of being so.

Example: Barry will steal anything that isn’t nailed down.

You’re saying that Barry doesn’t care what he steals; if he sees something he wants—regardless of what it is—he’ll take it.

Example: He asked me what I wanted for Christmas, but I couldn’t think of anything.

Here you’re saying that nothing came to mind; you’re unable to be specific.

Everything is a pronoun that means to encompass all.

Example: Jim was so hungry, he ate everything on his plate.

In other words, he ate it all.

Everything can also mean an essential fact.

Example: Mary’s friendship meant everything to Frank.

In other words, her friendship is of utmost importance to him.

The word something, when used as a pronoun, refers to an undetermined or unspecified thing.

Example: Peter seemed so distracted that I was certain he had something on his mind.

You do not know exactly what is on his mind; you only can tell that he’s disturbed.

Example: I’d like to do something different with this room.

You’re saying that you’re ready for a change but have not determined the nature of that change.

The language gets tricky when you have words that can be used in different contexts, thereby taking on completely different meanings. Anything and something are guilty of this. Take a look:

As an adverb, anything means to any degree or at all.

Example: He didn’t do anything.

Often anything is followed by the word but, which together mean not at all—often the opposite of the next word that follows.

Example: Harry is anything but handsome.

You’re saying that Harry is not good-looking—at all.

As for something, the word has its share of variant, albeit informal applications as an adverb, whether used alone or in combination with other words. Look at these:

Example: Marjorie cried something fierce.

Here, you’re talking about a behavior taken to an extreme degree. Compare it with: Marjorie cried.

Example: Germaine’s new dress is something else.

By using something with else, you’re saying that her dress is remarkable or truly special. This combination, however, often is dependent upon the context and inflection when pronounced, which can give it an altogether different meaning. Consider this:

Example: Johnny is such a mannerly student. Tommy, however, is something else!

Finally, something combined with of, means somewhat or to some extent.

Example: Jerry is something of a snob.

Or, Jerry is somewhat snobbish.

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