Today I saw a sentence:

She surely can do it.

What does that mean? How does it differ from:

She certainly can do it.

Surely she can do it.

This slight difference in meaning of those sentences I am not able to notice. Could you please help me? Thanks in advance!

4 Answers 4

  1. She sure/surely/certainly can ...

    Where I come from (US South) these would express admiration for her ability. Sure would be the ordinary colloquial form; surely would be a more emphatic colloquial form; and certainly would be acceptable in any register. Can, the adverb, and the following lexical verb would have equal primary stress.

    That little girl surely can dance!

  2. Surely she can ...

    This would express certainty that she has the ability or the opportunity or the option, and surprise that she has not done so, or the option has not been considered. The stress falls on surely, then falls until the final term of the clause.

    Surely she can ask her uncle if she needs the money.

    Certainly and sure are not used in this sense.

  3. a. Certainly she can ...
    b. She can ..., certainly.

    With primary stress on certainly, these would assert that she does indeed have the ability or opportunity or option. Sure or surely may replace certainly in conversational registers; surely would have a distinctly down-home feel.

    Certainly she can register for 300-level courses; her grades are outstanding.

    With the primary stress on can or on the verb which complements it, these would concede that she has the ability or opportunity or option, but would imply a following objection.

    Certainly she can register for 300-level courses, but I think it's a bad idea.
    She can register for 300-level courses, certainly, but I doubt the professors will admit her.

    Sure can replace replace stressed certainly in conversational registers, but surely is not likely to be used in this sense.

  4. She can certainly ...

    In this position certainly would not be stressed; the stress must fall on the following lexical verb, and the sentence will have the concessive sense.

    She can certainly register for 300-level courses, certainly, but I doubt the professors will admit her.

    Sure and surely would be used with primary stress shared with the following lexical verb, and would have the same admiring sense as 1.

    That little girl can sure/surely dance!

  • N gram 1 Ngram 2 Is using the word sure before the verb more common? May 23, 2014 at 12:30
  • 1
    @SantiSantichaivekin Yes it is; and it is pronounced with equal, emphatic stress on sure, the verb(s), and any complements: "She sure can dance the tango!" "He sure has been drumming up business!" May 23, 2014 at 12:41

These are all essentially equivalent, although surely might be a bit more often used in the sense of convincing oneself that she can do it, and certainly might be a bit more often used when contradicting the doubt of another that she can do it.

Also, the changing of the order of the words is often used along with emphasis of different words to convey varying shades of meaning.

CERTAINLY/SURELY she can do it. She can CERTAINLY/SURELY do it. [Disagreeing with someone who is saying that she can't do it, or responding emphatically to someone who is asking if she can do it. However, to my mind, the use of surely is a bit less emphatic than certainly, showing a bit less certainty.]

CERTAINLY/SURELY she can DO it. She can CERTAINLY/SURELY DO it. [With the idea "if she wants to".]


The use of certainly is used to say that there is no doubt.

She surely can do it

Think of it as "I think she can do it"

She certainly can do it

Think of it as "She can do it."


I like to address the "surely" vs. "certainly" with a bit of whimsy that most oft works. I had a teacher in Grammar School that put it this way: "Surely" is a name of a girl (Shirley) so if uncertain use "certaintly."

  • How does that make it clearer which one to use in this context?
    – DJMcMayhem
    Mar 26, 2016 at 6:28

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