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Wednesday, 14 November 2018

  1. I don't think Mr Barroso should be head of this unit. He knows ________ anything about the work we do.


The word anything causes problems because people often think it is a negative. Although it is often used with negatives, it is not negative in itself. We can say, for example,

  • He doesn't know anything about our work.

This is the same as saying

  • He knows nothing about our work.

Without a negative, anything expresses a hypothetical, open-ended possibility rather than something real, as in:

  • You can order anything you like from the dessert menu.

But you can't use anything in a sentence that doesn't express hypothetical possibilities, so you can't say:

  • He knows anything about our work.

In the sentence in the question, therefore, the missing word needs to be a negative to accompany anything.

(D) hardly is the best choice because it is a semi-negative which combines with anything. Hardly anything means almost nothing, just as hardly ever means almost never. A sentence like

  • I could hardly hear the music.


  • I almost couldn't hear the music.

(A) really doesn't work partly because it is not negative and can't be used with anything, and partly because it is an intensifier — a word that makes another word more true — whereas anything (or nothing, if the sentence were rewritten) is an absolute, binary, yes/no, black/white concept that doesn't have degrees of intensity. Really might work if it preceded the verb (since know can be intensified), and if anything was changed to nothing:

  • He really knows nothing about the work we do.

(B) absolutely doesn't work because it is not negative and can't accompany anything. It would work if anything was changed to nothing:

  • He knows absolutely nothing about the work we do.

(D) scarce doesn't work because it is an adjective rather than an adverb (meaning "in insufficient quantity"). As an adverb, however, it is very similar in meaning to hardly and would work in this sentence:

  • He knows scarcely anything about the work we do.