I know they are slightly different, but I can't tell how.

I've read about the usage of the word "really" in a negative sentence. But it didn't tell me about how the position of the word "really" can affect the meaning in a positive sentence.

I've heard sentences I'm confused about:

  • I am really sorry
  • I really am sorry

And these are the ones I've made up myself (I don't know if this kind of sentence exists):

  • She can be really persuasive
  • She really can be persuasive

How do I tell them apart (the grammatical structure)? Are they different in meaning too? How?

  • 23
    In short: in first case really serves as an adjective meaning very. In second case, really means truly, and serves as an adverb.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 16:29
  • 1
    @Ben has penetrated to the truth of this matter.
    – Robusto
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 17:39
  • 8
    @Ben Voigt \\ "Really" is an adverb in both instances. Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 17:56
  • 1
    @SenexÆgyptiParvi: Oh right, because sorry is itself a predicate-adjective. So of course it needs an adverb to modify it.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 17:58
  • 3
    "Really am" asserts sincerity; "really sorry" asserts intensity. Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 23:17

5 Answers 5


In 'I am really sorry', really is an intensifier. You can replace it with very.

'I really am sorry' is a reassurance: you are not saying how sorry you are, just that you are definitely sorry.

  • 8
    In the second case, you can't replace really with very.
    – gj255
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 17:27
  • 13
    But in both instances, you could replace them with truly.
    – bib
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 18:14
  • 5
    @DLeh no, replacing "I am really sorry" with "I am truly sorry" still operates as an intensifier. Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 21:01
  • 12
    @Josh What you really mean is I truly really am really truly very sorry!
    – bib
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 23:52
  • 3
    @bib I think that's what I really truly meant actually.
    – scohe001
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 0:26

"I am really sorry" means "I am sorry to a greater extent than if I said, 'I am sorry'"

The 'really' modifies 'sorry' and acts as a general intensifier.

"I really am sorry" means "I am sorry with a greater sincerity than if I said, 'I am sorry'"

The 'really' modifies 'am' and clarifies that the speaker is not being sarcastic or shallow.

"She can be (really persuasive)" = "She can be highly persuasive"

"She (really can) be persuasive" = "She certainly can be persuasive"

  • 1
    +1 The general rule is that you want the modifier as close as possible to the word it modifies to reduce ambiguity. Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 16:12
  • 4
    No, in 'I really am sorry', 'really' 'modifies' the whole statement. It is a modal (ie adding a comment about the truth value of the statement) pragmatic marker. It could be put to the end: 'I am sorry. Really!' Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 16:12
  • 2
    @Edwin: I really don't think so (i.e. - I definitely disagree). If on the other hand I'd said I don't think so, really (or put really at the start), it would not only apply to the whole statement - it would actually actually tend to weaken the assertion, not strengthen it. Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 17:50
  • @FF Is your first sentence an example or a comment? Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 19:56
  • 2
    @EdwinAshworth - Both, I think.
    – Bobson
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 20:13

Complex sentences can have modifiers whose meaning is ambiguous, and as a rule of thumb, in those cases, you should assume that any modifier is modifying the next word or phrase that makes sense. To illustrate, I'll just emphasize the modifier and the next word, as this is usually enough:

I am really sorry.

This sentence has the same meaning as I am sorry. The word really acts as an intensifier, indicating the degree to which he or she is sorry.

Someone may use the word in this way to indicate to the listener they realize what they have done is not a small thing, something that a simple apology may not be able to fix. You can swap the word really with another intensifier and get the same effect:

I am very sorry.

... has exactly the same meaning. Whereas:

I really am sorry.

If you follow the same logic as the first sentence, the word really is placed before am to emphasize that the speaker is truly in the state of being sorry. With the placement of the intensifier, the speaker is drawing attention to the fact that he or she is sorry over the degree to which he or she is sorry.

Someone may use the word in this way when they are trying to indicate that they are sorry, and how sorry they are is not as important as making sure the listener knows they are sorry. It may be indicating that this statement is sincere, not sarcastic or patronizing.

The difference between the two sentences might be even easier to understand if we were to combine the two sentences:

I really am very sorry.

In this case, not only is the speaker indicating sincerity ("really am") but also the degree to which he or she is sorry ("very" or "really sorry").

I also should note that this is assuming two native English speakers in dialogue. If one were speaking to a foreigner or a child, he or she may interpret both sentences the same depending on the context.


A co-worker says "I am really sorry; for not giving you credit for your idea during our business meeting"

The offended co-worker says; "Are you really? This seems to happen a lot with you"

The first co-worker says "I really am sorry; I hope you can forgive me!"

Note: the first occurrence is a "statement"; while, the second occurrence is a pleading; completely differing intents.


"I am really sorry" is a phrase which you use to emphasize the truth that you feel truly bad for happening. While "I really am sorry" is grammatically incorrect and should not be used.

  • They are both grammatically correct. Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 11:20
  • Welcome to ELU! This isn't correct, I'm afraid. One might say "I really am tanned" to assert that the summer holiday had some sort of effect. That's different to "I am really tanned" which means the holiday was very sunny and resulted in a deep tan.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 11:21

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