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When someone says,

I barely understand that.

Does he mean:

  1. He almost doesn't understand [which means he understands a bit]
  2. He almost understands [which means he doesn't understand]

Or if someone says:

Your brain is barely used.

Does he mean:

  1. Your brain is almost not used [which means, it is used, but very rarely]
  2. Your brain is almost used [which means it isn't]

I used to think that it was the first option. But a friend, out of the blue, said it was the second one.

Which one is it? Or have my friend and I got it entirely wrong?

Are there other words with similar meanings to barely? Is nearly one of them?

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You are correct. Synonyms for barely are hardly and scarcely. A good discussion of hardly/scarcely(barely) here. – medica Jan 26 '14 at 4:18
You've got it right. 'Nearly' is definitely not a synonym: it means "almost but not quite" whereas barely means "by the smallest margin". – jbeldock Jan 26 '14 at 6:26
@jbeldock: there are no exact synonyms. 'nearly' and 'barely' are synonyms, just with nuances in different directions. – Mitch Jan 26 '14 at 15:24
I think that's right, MItch. I suppose I should have said "Nearly is less close in meaning". – jbeldock Jan 26 '14 at 15:35
So you guys mean like, if the sentences above used nearly, it would mean the second options? That he almost understands (so he doesn't) and your brain's almost used (so it isn't)? – Safira Jan 26 '14 at 15:51
up vote 5 down vote accepted

It is item 1 in your post in each case which is correct.

It would be used to stress the fact of 'how little'. E.g., 'How can I possibly agree to marry him, I barely know him !'

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Does this also reflect the accurate usage of "barely" with a quantity? I created a separate question with more details here english.stackexchange.com/questions/332753/… – cheflo Jun 15 at 23:08

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