Grammar Usage

Little orphan “any”

Q: I wonder if you’re as struck as I am by the use of “any” in comparisons. Here’s one example: “the hottest of any year since records were kept.” Is this correct?

A: The use of the phrases “than any” and “of any” can sometimes be illogical when used to make comparisons.

Some usage authorities object to these constructions when not strictly logical, but others consider them acceptable idiomatic English. We’re somewhere in the middle.

The difficulty is more obvious in comparative phrases combining “than any” with words like “better” or “taller” or “bigger.”

The problem is less easy to see in superlative phrases combining “of any” with “best,” “tallest,” “biggest,” and so on.

For example, a comparative phrase like “louder than any singer in the choir” would make more sense as “louder than any other singer in the choir.” (A singer can’t be louder than himself.)

And in our opinion, “of any” can be illogical in superlative phrases as well. For instance, “the prettiest of any of her dresses” isn’t as logical as “the prettiest of all her dresses.”

That’s because the phrase “any of her dresses” implies that the comparison is being made individually—dress by dress by dress—which would call for a comparative phrase: “prettier than any of her other dresses.”

But you can find language commentators who’d consider this nitpicking, and there’s sometimes a fine line between a sensible superlative comparison and one that falls on the ear with a thud.

The phrase you mention—“the hottest of any year since records were kept”—seems reasonable to us.

But is “of any” really necessary here? Why not simply “the hottest year since records were kept” or “the hottest year on record”?

R. W. Burchfield, who edited the revised third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, put the problem this way:

“A fine net of illogicality mars constructions of the types this is the most brutal piece of legislation of any passed by this government (read this is a more brutal piece of legislation than any other passed by this government), and a better book than any written by this author (read than any others).”

We generally agree with Burchfield, though we’d drop the “any” business entirely in his first example: “this is the most brutal piece of legislation passed by this government.”

As we’ve said, some usage authorities disagree with us, and see no problem with using “of any” in superlative comparisons.

For example, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that in 2009, three-quarters of its Usage Panel accepted the sentence “He is the best known of any living playwright.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage calls this kind of construction a “long established idiom.”

Still, we have to ask, why not simply “the best known living playwright”? Why make this a comparison at all?

As we’ve said before, reasonable people can disagree. We think that when comparisons are being made, “than any” is problematic in comparative phrases and “of any” is problematic—and can often be dropped—in superlative ones.

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