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I bumped into a question concerning the place where the "really" should be.

I get confused because Google seems to have more results for "it can be really exciting", so I wonder which one is correct.

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  • Google's estimate is usually off by several factors of ten; it is essentially meaningless. See here for more info. – Laurel Oct 22 '18 at 5:14
  • As far as the question of which is correct is concerned, both are grammatical and make eminent sense. See also my comment at borrascador's answer. – Kris Oct 22 '18 at 6:34
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The differences here lies in emphasis. In the case of "can be really exciting", really modifies exciting. In the case of "can really be exciting" (which is equivalent to "really can be exciting"), really modifies be. The first case assumes that something is exciting and emphasizes how exciting it is, whereas the second case emphasizes the fact that something could be exciting in the first place, without assuming it.

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    +1 for “[difference] ... in emphasis”. But I think in “can really be”, really modifies be, not can. – Lawrence Oct 22 '18 at 5:18
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    You're absolutely right. Good catch! – borrascador Oct 22 '18 at 5:35
  • Also @Lawrence Most authors do not intend to mean that way. Usage of both forms for either sense (though incorrect in a strict sense) is very common. Some even think placing the be in between is a "scholarly" way of writing. – Kris Oct 22 '18 at 6:31
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    For completeness' sake, we should mention that "It really can be exciting" is also possible. – RegDwigнt Oct 22 '18 at 9:09
  • @Kris Some authors, perhaps, but I doubt you can substantiate that most authors intend that really modifies can in "can really be". On the other point: dropping be from "can really be exciting" produces something ungrammatical, not merely non-scholarly. – Lawrence Oct 22 '18 at 15:01
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The use of the word 'really' in this context is informal, even casual. It adds nothing to the word 'exciting', beyond the mood or attitude of the speaker. It is an example (stylistically) of a kind of inflation. No adjective is strong enough: 'exciting', 'thrilling' are already virtual superlatives, replacing words like 'fun', 'amusing', 'interesting'. It is a common, I should add 'unfortunate' habit to replace the positive with some kind of superlative. What it actually does is devalue the positive, as all inflation devalues.

For all that, it is how people tend to communicate on facebook, in the coffee house and elsewhere. It even creeps into official English. For example, Ofsted replaced 'very good' (already a superlative(-ish) term, with 'outstanding', which ought to be a descriptor for what is rare.

My reason for this answer is to point out that what we have in the difference between 'being really exciting' and 'really being exciting' is not the result of deliberate thought. So there is no point searching for subtle distinctions of meaning or even grammar. The injection of the (in effect) redundant 'really' is more like a particle, reflecting the speaker's state of mind. In fact, it could be argued that it is a sort of 'particle', a phenomenon so common in ancient Greek that whole books are published on the subject, such as "The Greek Particles" by D.L.. Denniston. For example, the particle 'ara' (αρα) could be used either to tell the listener/reader that they he is reading a question or to indicate a quizzical or skeptical attitude to what is being said/written.

You can tell that this is how 'really', used in the question, is like this, try negating it. 1. "No, it is not really exciting". Or 2. "No, it is really not exciting". In these cases, there is, in fact a more marked difference. Both mean not that it is not exciting, but might be quite fun. It means that either 1. it is a bit dull or 2. it is dead boring.

So this use of 'really' is certainly well-established in English usage. But it is not to be recommended to speak or writing that seeks any kind of precision.

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