I have found out that there is a phrase, which has a meaning of something like "whoever it was" - "кто бы то ни был". Why is "ни" used instead of "не"?

  • "Кого бы я не спрашивал" is not even a phrase, eh?
    – bipll
    Jun 4, 2016 at 12:21
  • It is a phrase - "Кого бы я не спрашивал о песнях про Байкал, люди помнят лишь две песни - «Славное море - священный Байкал» и «По диким степям Забайкалья»". nature.baikal.ru/forum/tread.shtml?id=1423
    – L_Pav
    Jun 4, 2016 at 12:56
  • 2
    @L_Pav it is a typo in this phrase.
    – Anixx
    Jun 5, 2016 at 7:18
  • @L_Pav it should be "ни" there.
    – bipll
    Jun 5, 2016 at 10:15
  • Yup, just realised that)
    – L_Pav
    Jun 5, 2016 at 12:33

4 Answers 4


"ни" is the amplifying particle, "не" is the negative particle.

There are no negation in phrase "whoever it was" and so particle "ни" used.

  • Ни is also a negative particle in most cases: никто, ни один, ни ел, ни пил. Dec 19, 2017 at 12:21
  • @SergeySlepov nope. Try to write whole sentence with one of this cases. Dec 19, 2017 at 12:27
  • Easy-peasy :) Кто ни ел, ни пил? Никто! Dec 19, 2017 at 12:30
  • @SergeySlepov "Кто не ел, не пил? Никто [не ел, не пил]!" Dec 19, 2017 at 12:40
  • OK, bad example, I agree. How about this one? "В кармане ни гроша" - is that a positive sentence? Dec 19, 2017 at 12:54

This is because the particle "ни" has a different meaning than the particle "не". In affirmative sentences in conjunction with the pronoun or interrogative words, "ни" means a true statement in any options:

Кого бы я ни спрашивал, все говорили, что не знают его.

Try to change "ни" to "не". The sense of the statement will change:

Кого бы я не спрашивал, все говорили, что не знают его. - I asked nobody, nobody knows him. Кого бы я ни спрашивал, все говорили, что не знают его. - I asked everyone, nobody knows him.


This word (looking different now and often mistook for "не" - "not") is a remnant of some old slavonic laguage. Standing in this context for the word "ever" usually going in company with "be" - "быть".
Like in:
whoever that be - кто бы это там ни был
whenever it happens - когда бы это ни происходило
weherever it is - где бы это ни было
Deep research should be made to find what word to this particle relates, in old slavonic. Because it is only orthographic dictionaries now are instructing how to write russian words with "не/ни". No any reference to language history. So few (if someone at all) people can give answer about the "ни" particle and why it is written that way.


The particle не is normally used for negation:

  • Не пойман - не вор. ([If one is] not caught, [then one is] not a thief.)

As for ни, there are actually two homonymic particles, one used for negation (on its own or with не):

  • Ни рыба, ни мясо
  • Ни себе, ни людям
  • Ни шагу назад! (Not a step backwards!)
  • Никто не забыт, ничто не забыто. (No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten.)

The other meaning "any", "every", "whichever":

  • Где бы я ни был (wherever I am), куда б я ни шёл (wherever I go), etc.
  • Куда-нибудь (somewhere), что-нибудь (something), etc (here ни merged with будь but retained the meaning).
  • Что ни на есть, какой ни на есть, etc.
  • Куда ни глянь (wherever you look), как ни старайся (however hard you try), etc.
  • Что ни день, то новости. (Every day there's news.) Etc.

It is this ни that appears in кто бы то ни был ('whoever it may be').

Source: this talk by A. A. Zalizniak. The link points to 56:37 where the discussion of ни (meaning "any") begins but I recommend watching the whole lecture.

  • "Он ни ел, ни пил" is a mistake; modern Russian rules requires two "не" particles in this case. Dec 19, 2017 at 12:46
  • That guy has worse Russian than me. Uhh, uhh, uhhhh--god, it drove me nuts. Basically, НИ was and still kind of is NOR, NEITHER. And-- кто бы он ни был = who (he, she, it) would neither (nor) be..., = it does not matter who.... Thanks for finally clearing this up for me. good answer.
    – VCH250
    Dec 19, 2017 at 14:37
  • Где бы я ни был--where would I (not, neither) be,...--Where (ever) I would not be = Be I here, be I there--nor there, nor here/ neither here nor there--it does not matter, all are the same.
    – VCH250
    Dec 19, 2017 at 14:45
  • что ни говори--what (ever) you are saying, or not saying--what you neither say,... it makes no difference. In a word--Он не ел, ни пил--the second part ,ни ... can be used alone to cover all the bases. Как бы то ни было--How that would be, or not be... all are the same.
    – VCH250
    Dec 19, 2017 at 14:57

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