In the Chris Medina song "What are words", he sings "what are words if you really don't mean them when you say them?". I am a non-native English speaker, but to my ears that doesn't sound good. Had I written that song, I would have let "really" and "don't" switch places. I discussed this with my wife who insists the meaning would be exactly the same, but in my mind there's a difference.

I feel that "really don't mean them" conveys that the person uttering the words doesn't mean them, with an emphasis. He really doesn't mean what he's saying. The words go against everything he stands for. The other way around, "don't really mean them", to me means that he says something that he could very well stand behind, but in secrecy he doesn't.

Am I correct in asserting the above? If I am, what could be the reason mr. Medina chose this particular wording, as it doesn't fit very well with what the rest of the song lyrics express?

  • 1
    You really don't get it, do you? would normally mean It's definitely true that you have no understanding at all of the issue under consideration. On the other hand, You don't really get it, do you? would normally mean You have some understanding, but you haven't quite understood all the subtle details. May 11, 2017 at 20:26

1 Answer 1


So we are comparing two sentences:

  • "What are words if you don't really mean them", and
  • "what are words if you really don't mean them"

I think in general, the "really" modifies the word after it, so the former has the connotation of only meaning them a little bit; the only thing that is eliminated is that you "really mean" them.

In the latter, the emphasis is to the negation, meaning that the speaker is vehemently not meaning them. It's a much stronger sentiment.

On a scale, it would look something like this:

  • Really mean them
  • Mean them
  • Don't really mean them
  • Don't mean them
  • Really don't mean them

By way of example in a different and self-referential context:

  • if you really like this answer then mark it up, and give it a tick;
  • if you like this answer then give it a point;
  • if you don't really like this answer then just ignore it,
  • if you really don't like this answer then mark it down.
  • And if it's essentially been given before in a previous thread? May 11, 2017 at 21:48
  • Probably vote to close?
    – Dr Xorile
    May 11, 2017 at 22:28
  • Downvote the answer? (I don't usually for answers to dupes from people with less than 1000 rep, but then they don't often contain voting advice.) May 11, 2017 at 22:33
  • I don't normally put voting advice into my answers. Just thought it was amusing in this context. Sorry if it's not.
    – Dr Xorile
    May 12, 2017 at 2:24

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