No, Not A, Not Any: How to Use Correctly

Summary

No is more emphatic than not any.

Example
  • I haven’t any money.
    Indicating the absence of money.
    I have no money.
    Indicating absence again, but more emphatically.

No is also used more often than the contracted not any in formal contexts (such as academic texts).

Examples
  • There aren’t any gaps in our neural representation of the world.
  • More formal: There are no gaps in our neural representation of the world.

No is generally used instead of not any in the subject of a sentence.

Example
  • No / Not any dragons were harmed in the making of this game.

A/an is generally used instead of any with singular countable nouns in negative statements.

Example
  • I don’t have a/any pen.

No cannot simply replace not a in sentences. Not a is used to make a straightforward negative statement, while no indicates that something is quite different from what has been implied.

Example
  • I am not an artist.
    Stating a fact.
    Well, he’s no expert.
    Quite other than an expert: emphasizing that he is not an expert at all.

No, any, and a as determiners

No, any, and a/an are determiners used before a noun to clarify its reference.

Examples
  • Maya is a writer.
  • Is there any money in the bag?
  • Check whether there are any potatoes in the basket.
  • I am no genius.
  • There is no gold in this river.
  • There are no potatoes in the basket.
Note
Since no and any are determiners that indicate quantity, they are also called quantifiers. The word a (or an when used before a word starting with a vowel sound) is the indefinite article in English, used to indicate that a singular countable noun is unspecific (a cat = one unspecific cat).

The adverb not is used with a and any in negative sentences. It is often contracted and combined with the main verb—for example, is not becomes isn’t.

Examples
  • Maya is not a writer.
  • There isn’t any money in the bag.
  • There aren’t any potatoes in the basket.

A, any, and no can all be used in negative sentences, but they convey different points of view or degrees of emphasis. In this article, we discuss when to use which: no, not a, or not any.

Not a vs. not any

With singular countable nouns, a/an is generally used rather than any in negative statements.

Examples
  • This is not a cat.
  • I am not a monster.
  • I don’t own a laptop.
  • We are at the pier, but there isn’t a boat in sight.
  • I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.

It is not grammatically wrong to use any with singular countable nouns in negative statements. But note that when any is used in this way, the word is stressed and lends greater emphasis to the sentence.

Examples
  • I don’t own any car at all, much less a Mustang.
    More emphatic than “I don’t own a car.”
  • This is not just any cat: it’s a talking cat.
    More emphatic than “This is not a cat.”
  • I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about!
  • The varnish hasn’t had any effect on the wood at all.
  • This isn’t any old lamp: it’s the Gaslighter Triumph!

In negative questions, a/an used with not implies a positive expectation. Affirmative questions with a/an (without not) are more open-ended.

Examples
  • Negative question: Isn’t there a way to solve this?
    The speaker believes there is a way and is confirming this positive expectation.
  • Affirmative question: Is there a way to solve this?
    More neutral: there may or may not be a way; the speaker does not know.

In contrast, not any conveys negative expectation in negative questions. Affirmative questions with not any are again open-ended, but more forceful than those with not a.

Examples
  • Negative question: Isn’t there any way to solve this?
    The speaker doesn’t think there is a way and is seeking to confirm this negative expectation.
  • Affirmative question: Is there any way to solve this?
    Open-ended, but with greater emphasis than “Is there a way?”

No vs. not any

Both no and not any can be used in negative statements. Using no is more emphatic. No instead of the contracted not any is also used more often in formal contexts.

Examples
  • There isn’t any coffee in this pot.
    Indicating the absence of coffee.
  • There’s no coffee in this pot.
    More emphatic.
  • There aren’t any projects left to finish.
    Less formal.
  • There are no projects left to finish.
    More formal.

Here are some more examples of not any and no used in negative statements. Again, no is more forceful and formal than any used with the negated verb.

Examples
  • I wouldn’t pay any heed to what he says.
    I would pay no heed to what he says.
  • I haven’t any idea at all why this happened.
    I have no idea at all why this happened.
  • I don’t see any light at the end of this tunnel.
    I see no light at the end of this tunnel.
  • The disasters aren’t in any way related to each other.
    The disasters are in no way related to each other.
  • I can’t see any dots at all.
    I can see no dots at all.
  • Fortunately for us, they haven’t any say in the matter.
    Fortunately for us, they have no say in the matter.

In the subject of a sentence, no is generally used instead of not any.

Examples
  • No / Not any questions were answered during the presentation.
  • No / Not any animals were harmed in the making of this film.
  • No / Not any human has ever lived on Neptune.

Note however that not any rather than no is used as the subject of a sentence to indicate that what is being referred to is special or important.

Examples
  • Not just any salt will do for this recipe: you need Himalayan pink salt.
  • Look at my cat counting her toys. Not any cat can count, you know.

Both no and not any are used to confirm negative expectations in questions. No is more emphatic. It is also used more often in formal and literary contexts.

Examples
  • Isn’t there any money left in our account?
    The speaker does not think there is money and is confirming this negative expectation.
  • Is there no money left in our account?
    No is stronger than not any and is used to convey a strong emotion, like shock or horror.

In questions, the not in not any contracts and combines with the verb in modern usage. No is more often used in formal contexts than the contracted not any. No is also more literary. Here are some more examples of not any and no used in questions. Note how no is more forceful and dramatic than not any.

Examples
  • Isn’t there any way to save this tree?
    The speaker does not think there is any way and is confirming this.
    Is there no way to save this tree?
    More forceful: the speaker is conveying disappointment, perhaps even despair.
  • Don’t we have any money?
    Conveying negative expectation while perhaps also expressing surprise.
    Do we have no money?
    Stronger, more emphatic and dramatic, perhaps expressing shock and dismay.
  • Isn’t there any hope at all?
    Is there no hope at all?
  • Aren’t there any volunteers?
    Are there no volunteers?
  • Don’t you have any work today?
    Do you have no work today?
  • Haven’t you any shame?
    Have you no shame?
  • Hasn’t she any time at all for us?
    Has she no time at all for us?
  • Aren’t there any students waiting for you in the classroom?
    Are there no students waiting for you in the classroom?
  • Isn’t there any ice-cream at all?
    Is there no ice-cream at all?
  • Aren’t there any unbiased news outlets?
    Are there no unbiased news outlets?
Caution

Any is used with the negated form of the verb, while no, which is itself a negative word, is used with the affirmative form of the verb.

Examples
  • Isn’t there any water in the bottle?
  • Isn’t/Is there no water in the bottle?

Contracted not any vs. no

In the negated verb + any structure, not is generally contracted in questions.

Examples
  • Aren’t any of these shoes on sale?
    Instead of “Are not any of these shoes on sale?” which is not grammatically wrong but would sound odd to most English speakers.
  • Don’t they have any questions?
  • Haven’t they found any water yet?

In statements as well, not is generally contracted in the verb + any structure.

Examples
  • There aren’t any shoes on sale.
  • They don’t have any questions.
  • They haven’t found any water at all.

Since contractions are not considered appropriate in formal writing (such as business and academic documents), the contracted not any is often replaced with no.

Examples
  • Less formal: They haven’t any other questions.
    More formal: They have no other questions.
  • Less formal: We didn’t take any readings on January 1.
    More formal: We took no readings on January 1.

Not a vs. no

No and not a mean different things. Not a is used to make a simple negative statement, while no is used to emphatically state that something is quite different from what has been assumed or implied.

Examples
  • I am not an artist.
    Statement of fact.
  • She is no artist.
    Contradicting an assumption or implication.

Here are some more examples of not a used to state facts.

Examples
  • He is not a surgeon.
  • I am not an expert.
  • This is not an easy task.

In contrast, no is used not simply to negate a statement, but also to indicate that reality is quite different from what may be assumed or implied. Thus, while not a presents a fact, no is used to contradict an assumption or implication.

Examples
  • He is no surgeon; he’s not even a doctor.
  • I am no expert.
  • This is no easy task.
  • She is no Mozart, even if she does play the piano.
Caution

In questions, no cannot simply replace not a.

Examples
  • Correct: Isn’t this a mouse?
    Incorrect: Is this no mouse?
  • Correct: Aren’t you a carpenter?
    Incorrect: Are you no carpenter?

When the indefinite article a/an is used instead of any with singular countable nouns in negative questions, it conveys a positive expectation. You cannot simply replace it with no, which conveys a negative expectation. Instead, use the stressed some to be emphatic.

Examples
  • Isn’t there a way to submit the form online?
    The speaker believes there is a way, and is confirming this.
  • Isn’t there some way to submit the form online?
    The word some is stressed in this sentence to emphasize the speaker’s positive expectation.

Examples from literature

Here are some examples from literature that show how no, not any, and not a are used. Note how no is more emphatic and dramatic than not a and not any.

Examples
  • I’m not a teacher: only a fellow-traveller of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead—ahead of myself as well as of you.
    George Bernard Shaw, Getting Married (1908)
  • There isn’t any “the future.” There’s an infinite number of possible futures, and we don’t know which one we’re going to get.
    Margaret Atwood, An interview with Margaret Atwood, by Trisha Gupta (2016)
  • Maybe, he thought, there aren’t any such things as good or bad friends—maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely.
    Stephen King, It (1986)
  • I’m sure it’s not any wish of mine that I’m born with inclinations for better things.
    Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career (1901)
  • I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.
    Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
  • Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
    Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
  • There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be.
    Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
  • No cat purrs unless someone is around to listen.
    Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Tribe of Tiger (2001)

Also note how in that last example, not a cat or not any cat cannot simply replace no cat as the subject of the sentence.

Indefinite pronouns starting with any and no

Indefinite pronouns starting with any and no are used much the same way as the determiners any and no. No one or nobody and nothing are more emphatic than not anyone/anybody and not anything.

Examples
  • I don’t have anything to give you.
    I have nothing to give you.
    Nothing is more emphatic and dramatic than not anything.
  • You and I haven’t anything in common.
    You and I have nothing in common.
  • You can’t believe anything he says.
    You can believe nothing he says.
  • I haven’t met anyone in months.
    I have met no one in months.
  • If you’re in pain, it’s because of those new shoes, not anything else.
    If you’re in pain, it’s because of those new shoes, nothing else.
Tip

No one and anyone, seen more often in writing and formal usage, mean the same as nobody and anybody, which are used more often in speech.

As the subject of a sentence, nothing is used instead of not anything.

Examples
  • Nothing / not anything matters anymore.
  • Nothing / not anything has happened yet.
  • Nothing / not anything you say can change my mind.

Quick Quiz

Which is correct?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is more emphatic?
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All done!
Which is more formal?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is correct?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is correct?
Choose from these answers
All done!

Did You Know?

It’s fine to start a sentence with because.
Know more:What Is a Conjunction? Types of Conjunctions