I don't really understand or I really don't understand

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MFLuder

Member
Italian
Hi, just a quick question.

What's the difference between those two sentences: "I don't really understand" and "I really don't understand".
This is the first example that i could come up with, but for example I have the same question for "I can easily help you" and "I can help you easily"...

I'm really having trouble trying to positionate the adverbs. Could you help me? Thanks a lot. : )
 
  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Hello, MFluder. I don't think there is any difference in meaning between the two sentences. English allows great freedom for the placement of adverbs, and I think that's what is occurring in your two sentences. If you're trying to develop a good feel for where you can place the adverbs, I suggest that you place them fairly close to whatever word you're modifying with them. That advice may not be especially helpful, but it's the best I can come up with right now. :)
     

    LV4-26

    Senior Member
    Hello, MFluder. I don't think there is any difference in meaning between the two sentences. English allows great freedom for the placement of adverbs, and I think that's what is occurring in your two sentences. If you're trying to develop a good feel for where you can place the adverbs, I suggest that you place them fairly close to whatever word you're modifying with them. That advice may not be especially helpful, but it's the best I can come up with right now. :)
    Hello, owlman
    That's true of...
    "I can easily help you" vs "I can help you easily"...

    But would you mind giving the title sentence a second thought? ;)
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    I see a difference.
    I don't really understand = I don't understand fully, or I understand something, but not really enough.
    I really don't understand gives emphasis to the negative and means I don't understand at all.
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    I think Einstein has a good explanation. After fifty years' experience with the language, I'm often a little fuzzy about the semantic differences between sentences such as the two we're comparing here. Whatever differences there are generally seem to reflect some slight emphasis on one or another word in the sentence.

    I can imagine myself using either one to mean the same thing, but I suppose that placing "really" before "don't" here emphasizes the idea of "not at all", as Einstein has suggested.
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    This often happens when we use an adverb with a negative.

    I don't often eat meat means I'm almost a vegetarian, but if I live in a country of carnivores where everyone eats meat every day except me, I can say I often don't eat meat, meaning it often happens that I don't eat meat, maybe 2 or even 3 times a week (but I eat it the other 4-5 days).
     

    LV4-26

    Senior Member
    To elaborate on what has been said about emphasis...
    The adverb often precedes the word it modifies. (Often, but not always, as evidenced in the other example.)

    The way I see it....
    In I don't really understand, we have [not really] modifying/weakening [understand] ==> my understanding isn't perfect.

    In I really don't understand, we have [really] modifying/strengthening [not understand]. ==> my incomprehension is total.

    That difference has been obvious to me from the start. Now, I'm interested -- and, I must say, shaken in my confidence -- to see that it may not be as striking as I thought.
     
    I agree with the above that there is a difference, but do want to point out it is extremely subtle and that the native speaker's brain understands the difference but wouldn't linger over it unless asked to. These are differences in stress, and they are slippery.

    At least in my American speech pattern, they would be voiced and paced differently, also:

    "I don't really....under...STAND..." Voice trailing off, not sure if I do understand or not, but probably I don't.

    "I-REALLY don't underSTAND!" I have no clue, I'm sure I didn't understand that at all.

    So it's not just placement, it's vocal delivery, as in all languages.
     
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    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    I see a difference.

    I don't really understand = I don't understand fully, or I understand something, but not really enough.

    I really don't understand gives emphasis to the negative and means I don't understand at all.
    I see a difference, too, and I agree with the above. :)
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I agree with the above that there is a difference, but do want to point out it is extremely subtle and that the native speaker's brain understands the difference but wouldn't linger over it unless asked to. These are differences in stress, and they are slippery.
    Sorry I have to disagree with this (everyone's entitled to their own opinion :)).
    There quite a significant difference in the level of strength that each sentence carries.

    I don't really like her (there's nothing about her that I instantly like, she's not someone I hate but I don't see her as likeable that much)
    I really don't like her
    (she really really annoys me and I don't like her a lot, she's done something that has made me feel this way about her).

    These (semantically) mean different things to me, the first one means I don't like her, it's not very strong, but there's nothing to like about her, it's mild, not really emphasised. The second sentence is really emphasising the dislike I have for her.

    When 'really' appears first, it's functioning as an adverb to strengthen the rest of the sentence, when it doesn't appear first, it's not an emphasising adverb anymore, it's used in these sentences to lessen the effect (strength) of the rest of the sentence.

    The second use, as I've just described in the sentence above is the same as "Not really", this is a milder version of "No". Whereas the other way around is "Really not / don't". Basically the semantic function of 'really' is the opposite in these pairs of sentences, so I can't agree that it's a tiny subtle difference. If someone asked you about a film you watched and it didn't really do anything for you, it was just okay, you can respond "I didn't really like it", it's a milder way of saying "I didn't like it", whereas the difference is clear with "I really didn't like it", which actually strengthens the message conveyed about how much you disliked it.

    I do agree we don't linger over it, because as native speakers the associated placement conveys immediate subconscious meaning that we're not conscious of, but this in itself doesn't mean that the difference has to be subtle. In sentences like "I gave Mary Paul" or "I gave Paul Mary", the difference is obvious about who is being given to whom, but it's not something the human brain lingers over, but it's an instant understanding that directly after the verb is the recipient. In the same sense here the placement of 'really' is immediately deciphered by the mind as conveying those different meanings.

    Pre-auxiliary = emphasising.
    Post-auxiliary = deemphasising.
     
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    suso26

    Senior Member
    Spanish México.
    So it's not just placement, it's vocal delivery, as in all languages.
    Now I am confused too. I have learnt that position of adverbs can change the sense of the sentence but If the natives sometimes have doubts, my own doubts multiply.. :D
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Now I am confused too. I have learnt that position of adverbs can change the sense of the sentence but If the natives sometimes have doubts, my own doubts multiply.. :D
    Hi suso, it's nothing to get worried about. The placement of the adverb still changes, all that was meant was that when "really" comes after the auxiliary (the deemphasising one), then the way you say it is a bit different, it's stressed, people say it differently (they usually hold onto the vowel sound for longer and it's usually accompanied by a facial expression).

    I don't 'reeaaly' want to go to the park today. (I'd like to not go to the park today)
    I 'really' don't want to go to the park today. (There is no way I am going to the park today)

    Basically, what Dale was saying, was it's not a case of just swapping the words, there are other changes that help you understand which meaning is meant.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    Now I am confused too. I have learnt that position of adverbs can change the sense of the sentence but If the natives sometimes have doubts, my own doubts multiply.. :D
    I think dale is in a minority thinking the difference is "extremely subtle". Most of the others, and now me included, feel the difference is substantial. However, he is right that vocal stress is an important modulator in this example as in most speech!
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    It is certainly true that how something is said carries a lot of meaning. However, even in writing I see the differences described above. My way of explaining it is that the meaning depends on what "really" is describing.

    I don't really understand: What I don't do is 'really understand'. Really modifies understand.

    I really don't understand: It is actually the fact that I don't [understand]. Really modifies don't.
     

    suso26

    Senior Member
    Spanish México.
    Basically, what Dale was saying, was it's not a case of just swapping the words, there are other changes that help you understand which meaning is meant.
    That is why I really like to visit the English Only Forum. :D
     
    What I am saying is that language is a spoken thing first and that the human brain understands "grammar" and "semantic placement" long before such advanced explanatory constructs are learned years later, in something called schools, and only if one had the privilege of attending them, and then further has the kind of mind which gravitates to, and understands such artificial constructs as a school subject, and that at four years old, if not earlier, a native speaker of English grasps at an instant "Sally went to school today" without needing to have ever been taught such things as "proper name, past tense of "to go", preposition, object, adverb of time, etc.

    Yes, I do also "see" the difference by placement when it is written down, and was later educated to talk about parts of speech, but I heard the difference in childhood as did perhaps a contemporary who did not learn the parts of speech and can't easily articulate the difference now.

    In this and other language forums, threads sometimes continue for pages because the native speakers are not in serious dispute, really, about some question raised, but were sent to different schools with different jargons of "grammatical terms" or systems of parsing the construction which are not universal, and to me, by definition, beautiful abstractions!
     

    MilkyBarKid

    Senior Member
    British English
    Let's try to pull this together for MFluder, who thought this was a quick question.
    The context I am assuming is, say, someone responding when a maths problem has just been explained to the speaker, as opposed to the speaker responding to an affront.*

    "I don't understand." - bald statement of fact.

    "I don't really understand." - 'softens' the statement, makes it more friendly. The person has taken the trouble to explain something to you. Rather than a cold, direct statement that the person has totally failed to explain something in a way comprehensible to me, I use 'really' to qualify 'understand': I kind of get it, but not completely.

    "I really don't understand." - a direct and adamant statement, since the adverb 'really' now modifies the verb 'don't'. The speaker might have tried to explain it a second time, and the listener is still perplexed. This is softened with a particular tone of exasperation, and facial expression, indicating 'it's me, I must be dumb", rather than the other person's fault in not explaining it clearly.

    * "I really don't understand how you have the gall to tell me what or what not I should have..." - a polite-ish way of taking issue with a person.
     
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