«Кое-», «-то» и «будь»

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Ever wondered how кое-кто, кто-то, and кто-нибудь can all translate to someone in English and yet have completely different meanings in Russian? By the time you’ve finished reading this post you’ll be an expert in using the prefix кое- and the suffixes -то and -нибудь with this and other Russian question words.

«Кое-», «-то» и «будь»
Кое-кто, кто-то, and кто-нибудь, all three of these words can translate into the same word in English, someone. Why then do Russians bother using all three? Moreover why can we use these additional particles with all the other question words too? Why bother with six words, кое-что, что-то, что-нибудь, кое-где, где-то, and где-нибудь, when we could just use two, something and somewehere?
You will find the answers to all this, and a little bit more below.
Question Words
Let’s start by reviewing some of the question words that we can use the prefix кое- and the suffixes -то and -нибудь with. All of the following words can use all three of these particles:
Кто – Who
Что – What
Где – Where (Locational)
Куда – Where (Directional)
Когда – When
Как – How
Какой – What kind of
These are not to only question words that use кое-, -то, and -нибудь but they are the most commonly used. The meaning that these prefixes/suffixes add when used with these question words is the same for every word so we won’t include examples using every particle with every question word here. The only words which do use кое-, -то, and -нибудь differently are когда and как, but we will talk about them a bit later on.
-нибудь vs. -то
To get a basic idea of the difference in meaning between these two suffixes let’s look at the difference between что-то and что-нибудь. Put simply, что-то means, “some specific thing but I don’t know what exactly”. Что-нибудь, on the other hand, means, “a non-specific thing and I don’t care/know what it is”.
Take a look at these two example sentences:
Он читает что-то.
He is reading something.
Я хочу что-нибудь почитать.
I want to read something.
In the first example the man is definitely reading a specific something, perhaps we can see the thing he’s reading, we just don’t know what it is exactly. Maybe it’s too hard to tell what he’s reading; it could be that he’s reading something on a smartphone so we can’t see if it is an article, a comic, or even a blog. Alternatively, maybe we can see what he’s reading, a book for example, but we don’t know which book in particular. In all these situations we use что-то.
In the second example however, we’re not talking about a defined object. There is no specific book in our hands here.  Moreover we don’t care about the exact identity of the abstract thing we’re talking about; we don’t mind if it’s a newspaper, a book or perhaps even an instruction booklet from Ikea, we just want to read.
The same is true when we use other question words.
Он уже ушёл куда-то.
He already left to go somewhere. (I know that he left to go to a specific place but I can’t remember/don’t know where.)
Пойдём сегодня куда-нибудь поесть?
Shall we go somewhere for a meal today? (I want to go somewhere but I don’t have any particular place in mind.)
Мои ключи должны быть где-то здесь.
My keys must be here somewhere. (I know I left my keys in a specific location but I can’t remember where exactly.)
Не знаю, была ли она где-нибудь за границей. 
I don’t know if she has ever been abroad anywhere. (I’m not talking about whether she has been to a specific country or not, I’m interested in whether she has ever been to any other country in general.)
There a couple of clues that you can get from your situation and from what you and other people are saying that will help you understand when you need to use -то and when you need to use -нибудь. First of all -нибудь is normally used when asking questions, specifically when you want to know about whether an action happened or not.
For example:
Ты когда-нибудь была в Китае?
Have you ever been to China?
Ты не знаешь  есть ли здесь где-нибудь автобусная остановка?
You don’t know if there is there a bus stop anywhere nearby, do you?
Кто-нибудь звонил, пока меня не было?
Did anyone call me while I was out?
In all these cases we can’t talk about a specific time, place or person because we don’t know if these actions even happened or not.
It makes sense then that when we respond to questions like the ones above with an affirmative answer, we use -то. The action happened and therefore we can start talking about the specific time or place it happened or the specific person who did it.
Да, я когда-то была там.
Yeah, I was there at one point in the past.
Да, где-то здесь есть автобусная остановка.
Yes, there is a bus stop somewhere here.
Да, кто-то звонил, но я не узнал по голосу, кто это был.
Yes, someone rang but I didn’t recognise their voice
Another big clue as to which form you should use comes from the word из. If at any point you’re talking about something or someone or somewhere (etc. etc.) from a larger group, then you’ll normally need to use -нибудь.
Вы желаете что-нибудь из товаров по акции?
Would you like any of the products on special offer?
Кто-нибудь из вас знает, где я оставил мой чемодан?
Do any of you know where I left my suitcase?
Я хочу прочитать какое-нибудь произведение из русской классики.
I want to read a work of Russian classical literature .
-то vs. Кое-
Once you’ve read a couple of examples it’s relatively easy to understand the difference between -то and -нибудь. For many students understanding the difference between -то and -кое, on the other hand, is more difficult, but it needn’t be.
Earlier we said that что-то means “some specific thing but I don’t know what exactly”, well кое-что means “some specific thing and I know exactly what that thing is”. The following examples should make this clear.
А: “Почему компьютер не работает?” (Why isn’t the computer working?)
В: “Точно не знаю, что-то сломалось.” (I’m not completely sure, something broke.)
А: “Почему компьютер не работает?” (Why isn’t the computer working?)
В: “Кое-что сломалось.” (Something broke.)
А: “Опять карта графики?” (The graphics card again?)
В: “Да, представь? Мы только что ремонтировали её.” (Yeah, can you believe it? We just had it fixed.)
In the first conversation person B knows that something has broken, they’re just not sure what exactly. In the second conversation however, person B knows that something has broken and is certain that it is the graphics card.
This difference in meaning is the same for all of our question words (except кое-как, but more on that in a second).
Я приду на пятнадцать минут позже, чем мы договорились, мне надо кое-куда зайти по пути.
I’ll arrive fifteen minutes later than we agreed, I need to stop by somewhere on the way.
Вы не знаете, где Анастасия? Мне сказали, что она куда-то пошла.
Do you know where Anastasia is? I was told she went somewhere.
Да, я сам собрал  компьютер, хотя кое-кто помогал мне выбрать детали.
Yeah, I built the computer myself, although someone helped me to choose the parts.
Кто-то, уже не помню кто, объяснил, как это всё работает. 
Someone, I can’t remember who already, explained how all of it works.
You might still be left with the question, why, if we know exactly who or what we’re talking about, would we ever say someone or something instead of just naming the thing itself? There are few situations in which we might do this. Maybe the information isn’t super important and you don’t want to explain the details (as in the example above about coming late “мне надо кое-куда зайти до пути”), maybe you think the other person also knows the thing you’re talking about and you want them to guess (as in our example with the computer “кое-что сломалось”), basically any reason you would have for skipping over known information and just saying something/someone/somewhere/etc. in English can be a reason to use кое- in Russian.
The Inevitable Exceptions – Когда and Как
As is to be expected in Russian, there are some exceptions to the patterns outlined above. The question words когда and как have a couple of extra rules about how we can use кое-, -то, and -нибудь with them.
The rules for когда are pretty simple. Кое-когда has exactly the same usage as other question words with кое- (at a certain time and I know exactly when). Когда-то and когда-нибудь are a little bit weird however. Когда-то cannot be used to describe the future, only the past, and similarly когда-нибудь can only be used to describe the future not the past. This makes sense really, if something has already happened then it must have happened at a specific time, the only question is do you remember it or not? Likewise if something hasn’t happened yet we can’t be sure it will happen so we can’t talk about it happening at a specific time.
Я когда-то жил в Германии.
I lived in Germany at one point.
Я хочу съездить в Японию когда-нибудь.
I want to go to Japan at some point.
There is also an exception to the exception. We can use когда-нибудь to talk about the past if we’re asking a question about an action. Again, when asking these kinds of questions we’re not sure if the action happened or not so it makes sense to use когда-нибудь.
Ты когда-нибудь говорил с ней?
Have you ever spoken with her?
Ты когда нибудь смотрела этот фильм?
Have you ever seen this film?
Как is the opposite way around; the patterns for using как-то and как-нибудь are the same as for all other question words but the way that кое-как is used is slightly different. We only use кое-как when we want to highlight that something was difficult to achieve. This could be because it required great physical strength or great force of will or something else entirely, the most important thing is that you succeeded in completing the action despite these difficulties.
For example:
Фильм был очень скучный, но мы кое-как досмотрели его до конца.
The film was really boring but somehow we managed to watch it through to the end.
Я заблудился в лесу. Я совсем не знал, где я, но кое-как нашёл путь домой.
I got lost in the woods. I had no idea where I was but I somehow found the path home.
Когда он сказал, что хотел драться с медведем, мы все думали, что он сошёл с ума, но он кое-как победил.
We all thought he had gone insane when he said he wanted to wrestle with a bear, but he somehow managed to win.
All of these rules can be quite difficult to remember in a conversation, but don’t worry if you make a few mistakes; it’s generally quite easy to understand someone even if they say кто-то when they meant кое-кто. Focus on learning the simplest rules first (like always using -нибудь with questions about actions that may or may not have happened) and try to remember more and more or the nuances after that.