68

I can't distinguish the difference in meaning between these two sentences.

  1. It really doesn't matter.

  2. It doesn't really matter.

It seems that there is a nuanced difference, but I cannot see what this is.

  • 3
    Might be related to this question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/249040/… – Jim Oct 17 '17 at 16:43
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    I guess if you can't see the difference then it doesn't really matter... – Mehrdad Oct 19 '17 at 8:22
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    Can't disagree more @Mehrdad, when you can't tell why it's done differently that's probably precisely when you need to find out. The difference in meaning is quite large. – pbhj Oct 19 '17 at 19:50
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    @pbhj: Someone's taking things way too seriously! – Mehrdad Oct 19 '17 at 20:01
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    I think of this like "It really [doesn't matter]" vs "It doesn't [really matter]" where in both cases "really" intensifies what follows it. – Cai Oct 20 '17 at 9:09
171

When the adverb really comes before a negated auxiliary, the effect is of emphasising the truth of the sentence:

  • I really cannot tell the difference.

Here the speaker is emphasising that they honestly are unable to detect any difference.

However, when really comes after the negated auxiliary, the effect is usually quite different. Instead of making the meaning of the sentence absolute, it has the effect of making the commitment vaguer:

  • I can't really tell the difference.

Here the speaker means that they cannot tell the difference in an absolute way. This gives the impression that they actually can tell the difference a little bit, but not in a way that is important or significant.

The Original Poster's examples:

  1. It really doesn't matter.

  2. It doesn't really matter.

In example (1), the speaker is emphasising that it does not matter at all. The sentence has an emphatic flavour.

In example (2), the speaker is saying that it doesn't matter in a major or significant way. They are implying that maybe it matters a bit, but not to a significant or meaningful degree. Far from being emphatic in character, the second sentence is slightly vague, and may be perceived as off-hand.


What causes these differences is whether the adverb really is changing the meaning of the word not— or whether the word not is changing the meaning of really (technically, whether not scopes over really, or really scopes over not). It's a bit easier to see with a follow-on sentence:

- It really doesn't matter. Really not.

- It doesn't really matter. Not really.

  • 76
    Nice explanation. Ultimately the word "really" means the same in both cases, of adding strength or emphasis. So the first one is like "I definitely cannot tell the difference" (ie I am sure that I can't) and the second is like "I cannot definitely tell the difference" (ie I am not sure that I can). – Max Williams Oct 17 '17 at 16:15
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    @MaxWilliams Yes, agreed. In fact that's a great way of putting it. – Araucaria Oct 17 '17 at 16:17
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    @MaxWilliams Are you going to do an answer? – Araucaria Oct 17 '17 at 16:20
  • Maybe to expand, "It is very much true that it doesn't matter" or "It is true that it doesn't matter very much". Both statements could conceivably refer to the same situation, but the first emphasizes how much it doesn't matter while the second emphasizes that there is some small degree to which it may matter. – Darren Ringer Oct 17 '17 at 19:43
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    Best part: "What causes these differences is whether the adverb really is changing the meaning of the word not— or whether the word not is changing the meaning of really (...) - It really doesn't matter. Really not. - It doesn't really matter. Not really." -- great answer @Araucaria, that really brings out the difference! – English Student Oct 19 '17 at 8:13
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Ultimately the word "really" means the same in both cases, of adding strength or emphasis.

If we swap "really" for "definitely" this becomes more clear: The first one is like

"It definitely doesn't matter" (I am sure that it doesn't: certainty)

and the second is like

"It does not definitely matter" (I am not sure that it does: uncertainty)

18

I think it helps a lot to break these two sentences down:

  1. It really doesn't matter: The base sentence here is It doesn't matter. Really is an adverb which modifies doesn't. In this case, it puts emphasis on doesn't, meaning that it does not matter to a high degree.
  2. It doesn't really matter: The base sentence here is It really matters. Doesn't modifies really by negating it.

So the difference between these two sentences is two-fold. The first is the difference between It really matters and It doesn't matter. The second is the difference between the modifiers doesn't and really.

It really matters means that something matters a lot, while it doesn't matter means it that something does not matter.

As an adverb, really puts emphasis on the verb it comes before. I want to eat ice cream means you just want to eat some ice cream, whereas I really want to eat ice cream means that you want to eat ice cream very much.

Doesn't, which is the same as does not, simply negates anything that it comes before. I want to eat ice cream vs I don't want to eat ice cream.

Putting these two things together, you can get a good sense of the differences between these two sentences.

9

When dealing with modifiers, it is crucial to understand what is being modified, and in English, this is typically determined positionally: modifiers tend to come directly before the thing being modified.

So here are the original sentences, adding arrows to indicate what's being modified by "really":

It (really -> doesn't) matter.1

It doesn't (really -> matter).

So the distinction is that the first sentence is emphasizing doesn't, while the second is emphasizing matter. Emphasizing that something doesn't matter simply reinforces how unimportant it is. By emphasizing matter, however, the second sentence becomes a statement of degree; it is about how much "it" matters.

This is because if something "really matters", it doesn't just matter; it matters more than something that merely "matters".

Thus, the second sentence is not indicating that "it" doesn't matter at all, it is merely indicating that "it" doesn't matter as much as something that "really matters".2

So in fact in the first sentence, "really" makes the sentence more emphatic overall, because it emphasizes that "it" doesn't matter at all, while the second sentence is ultimately less emphatic, since "it" might still matter somewhat. In order of increasing emphasis, i.e., a decreasing degree of perceived importance of "it":

  1. It doesn't really matter.
  2. It doesn't matter.
  3. It really doesn't matter.

Footnotes:

  1. I'm treating "doesn't" as a single syntactic "thing to be modified" here; one could also expand the contraction into "does not", where "not" actually modifies "does"—a notable exception to the rule-of-thumb above that modifiers modify what's immediately after them!)
  2. Sorry if you, like me, are approaching semantic satiation with the word "matter".
  • 1
    Solid answer; I upvote! Maybe you should order those statements by decreasing emphasis, i mean most emphatic statement first, flat statement next and weak statement last? That would seem clearer to the reader. Note 2: Once semantic satiation is reached, any verb can replace 'matter' and it doesn't really matter. – English Student Oct 19 '17 at 8:17
  • @EnglishStudent Thanks for the suggestion of reversing the list. I wanted the list order to be inverted from the original question so that it would force the reader to slow down and read the list and consider its order carefully, but that may have been a mistake. I'll think about reversing it. – Kyle Strand Oct 19 '17 at 17:11
2

In sentence #1, really modifies "doesn't matter".
In sentence #2, really modifies "matter".


EDIT

Both can be seen as an answer to the wh-question "Does it matter?".

Sentence #1 means: it doesn't matter at all. The "doesn't matter" factor is more than the "matter" factor.

Sentence #2 means: it matters. It does matter. But doesn't matter that much. Doesn't matter a certain amount. Anything that matters at least that much (that "certain amount") or more is thought to really matter.

  • Your answer made me think: +1 -- may i suggest the 'nuanced difference' OP seeks is between 'really doesn't' and 'doesn't really' -- especially because both sentences begin with 'it', end with 'matter' and are basically answers to the question 'does it matter?' You could develop this promising answer along those lines @Soha Farhin Pine. – English Student Oct 21 '17 at 9:13
  • @EnglishStudent Your suggestion has been duly noted and incorporated into the answer body. – Soha Farhin Pine Aug 26 '18 at 19:13
  • Thanks! That makes it a really good answer @Soha Farhin. – English Student Sep 2 '18 at 11:27
1

How much does it matter on a scale from 1 to 10?

"It doesn't really matter" means it can't be 10.

"It really doesn't matter" means it can't be 2 through 10. You could argue it couldn't even be 1.

-1

"It really doesn't matter" - If I give you 4 quarters or a dollar bill.

"It doesn't really matter" - If I owe you $1.05 and only give you $1.

  • 2
    What is it you’re trying to convey here? Your answer looks like: "Despite the constant negative press covfefe". Answers should provide some explanation. – NVZ Oct 20 '17 at 19:01

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