Isn’t it great to have a nice little space on the internet where you can avoid all the petty nastiness of current politics, especially all the horrid news that keeps coming from the White House? A place where you can forget about all that, and think about language, without hearing about Donald Trump and his cronies?
By the way, did you see what Melania Trump was wearing today?
Which was odd, to say the least. Simply for not fitting in with typical First-Lady attire. I couldn’t imagine Jackie Kennedy or Eleanor Roosevelt wearing it. But it also seems particularly insensitive given what her awful husband and his administration have been doing lately.
Was it a deliberate insult? Probably not: it was more likely a case of thoughtlessness. Or maybe someone wrote it on her jacket while she wasn’t looking as a practical joke. Some people will probably say it’s some kind of cry for help, or act of rebellion against the president.
While I do find the choice of clothes odd, I don’t want to devote too much thought to it. What’s interesting about it though, is what it reveals about the power of adverbs. Compare the following two sentences:
I really don’t care.
I don’t really care.
Do you feel there’s a difference between the two?
Sure, they are both basically the same, but there’s a subtle difference. Both are quite negative, but I think the former is worse. Putting really, the intensifying adverb, before the verb makes it feel more forceful, like you really want to emphasise that you don’t care. You want to make it clear that not only do you not care you really don’t care.
The second one is a little softer though. We’re still saying that we don’t care, but it’s not as forceful as the former. And this is all because the position of the adverb really changes the meaning in a subtle but significant way.
In the first sentence, really functions as an intensifying adverb, modifying don’t care, the negative form of the verb to care. It makes the sentiment of the verb stronger, like when we say I really like it instead of just I like it.
If we put really after don’t though, the meaning changes significantly. First of all, it’s modifying care, not don’t care. Second: its meaning changes. Here its meaning is more like truthfully, rather than being a simple intensifier. So in this case, we’re saying something like I don’t actually care. Which still has the basic meaning of I don’t care, but lacks the intensifying factor of I really don’t care. Instead, we might use this sentence in a situation where we’re pretending to care, but confess to someone that we don’t really care.
Or it could be indifferent: I don’t really care to be honest. Whatever.
So the two are superficially quite similar, but deep down are really quite different. Which is why it’s surprising that this BBC report gets it wrong and says that Melania was wearing a jacket that said I don’t really care. I thought it might be an innocent slip, but the mistake is made in both the headline and in the body of the text.
UPDATE!!: Ah ha! Just after writing that paragraph, I had another look at the article, and it’s been corrected! Thanks to the magic of MS Paint though, and keeping tabs open so you can link to them in your post, here’s evidence that it was originally in error:
What’s the reason for the original error? It might still be a genuine slip, made by someone rushing to get it published to maximise clicks. Or maybe it was too go a little easy on Melania. A lot of people feel sorry for her, being stuck with such an awful, awful husband. I sympathise a little, as I’m sure it’s a nightmare living with him, but she did choose to do so. But maybe the writer was even unintentionally sympathetic towards her, which expressed itself in the less negative I don’t really care.
Whatever the reason, it shows the importance of being precise with language, especially when dealing with the words and actions of terrible people who really don’t care about the people they’re supposed to serve.