4

To express the idea that you know nothing about something, you can say 'I don't understand at all'.

Is the following sentence natural?

I totally/completely/absolutely don't understand.

In hinative, people said this is unnatural or strange.

"I totally can't understand" is strange. You should use "totally" with positive sentences, not negative ones.

However, according to ludwig.guru, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Vice used this expression:

1. enter image description here

2. enter image description here

3. enter image description here

4. enter image description here

I'm so confused.

5
  • 2
    These people, speaking/writing informally, evidently find it natural, but it isn't very good English in my opinion. I'm completely mystified/puzzled/baffled by it, yes, but I completely don't is strange. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 12:06
  • Absolutely isn't idiomatically common, but totally and completely are fine. @KateBunting, think of it as a style of emphasis, which (in terms of English 'quality') is at least as good as sticking adjectives on the other side of an indefinite article imho. :-D
    – mcalex
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 13:41
  • 6
    Please replace the screenshots of quotes with the actual quotes themselves. This is for searching and accessibility reasons.
    – gotube
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 14:47
  • 1
    The writer seems to be using these adverbs for emphasis rather than to modify a verb as intended. You see it a lot but I agree with @KateBunting. It is poor English and I wouldn't write that way.
    – John Douma
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 21:45
  • I disagree that absolutely is the most unusual one out of this set. In fact I think the opposite. "I absolutely do not agree" sounds perfectly fine to me where variants using totally or completely sound like slang to my ear.
    – Eric Nolan
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 10:01

6 Answers 6

6

In American spoken English, in the last twenty years or so, the word totally is used in a way that was not used before:

It is basically slang or looser speech.

Example: "I totally don't understand". Meaning: I really don't understand.

In formal conversation between high-level speakers you probably would not hear the sentence above.

All the examples given by the OP reflect this usage. The Huffington Post one is probably spoken English, too.

Generally, in the past, totally, completely and absolutely were used in declarative sentences or negatives ones like this: I completely or absolutely understand.
OR
I understand completely or absolutely [less common but used]
I don't completely understand. [absolutely would not be used here].

In the past, totally was only used in declarative sentences: "I totally understand".

This usage of totally is similar to the usage of so.

"He so isn't into it." for: "He isn't into it at all".

[idiom: to be into something; to like it]

2
  • I think it is used in BrE just as you suggest. I have seen totally replaced by totes but that is probably a younger person's usage.
    – mdewey
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 15:02
  • Good! As an intensifier, "so" and "totally" can often be interchanged. Also true: It is probably what younger speakers would use (but young is relative and a moving target). "This is totally not true!" vs. "This is so not true!" The latter is probably more idiomatic. Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 2:23
4

"I totally do not understand" is common English and completely natural and acceptable.

As @jeffmorrow notes, "I do not totally understand" and "I totally do not understand" mean very different things. The first means I understand somewhat, but not totally. The second means that I don't understand at all.

But I must disagree with him when he says that that makes the construction confusing. There are lots of sentences in English where a change in word order completely changes the meaning of the sentence. "Al punched Bob in the face" means something very different from "Bob punched Al in the face". "My company makes me work hard" means pretty much the opposite of "My company hardly makes me work". Etc. One could play this game all day.

2

As should be obvious from your second citation, what you are asking about is indeed natural in current American English. Words like “totally” or “absolutely” are used as intensifiers in negative statements.

What may be less obvious is that the quotations do not seem to be from serious writing.

I do not totally understand

implies that you partially understand.

So to say

I totally do not understand

as meaning that you do not understand in any respect leads to confusing communication.

It is currently a common usage, but not one that will impress careful users of English.

1
  • I think it's common to use totally as emphasis in response. For instance "We changed our minds are are not going to pay you what we agreed. You understand." "I totally don't understand".
    – Eric Nolan
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 9:58
2

To place 'at all' after a negative statement is the normal, standard, formal English way of expressing a complete lack.

I don't understand/like/enjoy/expect (etc) something at all.

I don't understand at all (of something just said or being discussed).

You can prefix a positive or negative statement with a modifier such as 'completely' or 'totally'.

I completely/totally understand geometry.

To use 'totally' to prefix a negative statement is a fairly recent informal usage, and is very common in UK and American casual and informal English, especially among younger people. I expect the contributors to HiNative haven't heard about that.

I totally don't understand what you mean.

I totally don't like salty popcorn

1

I think the problem is actually more subtle.

In the examples given, you see that the intensifier is followed by "do not". This can be contracted to "don't", of course. But the intentional use of "do not" instead of "don't" is already an intensifier. "I don't agree" is less strong a statement than "I do not agree".

Now, if we would reword your example, and say "I totally do not understand", then the sentence does become more natural.

3
  • 3
    I do not agree that "I don't agree" is less strong a statement than "I do not agree". I don't agree at all.
    – mcalex
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 13:43
  • @mcalex Well, "do not" gives you an opportunity to make it a stronger statement because you now can emphasize the single words. Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 2:25
  • like @mcalex I don't agree that "don't" is inherently less strong than "do not". The fact the examples (mostly) use "do not" is definitely relevant though. Using these positive intensifiers with "do not" sounds natural (if informal) to me, but using them with "don't" does not (where I would expect an "at all" at the end of the sentence instead)
    – Tristan
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 14:11
1

To my ear, “I absolutely do not understand,” is correct. “I totally do not understand,” is more informal. “I completely do not understand,” does not sound right to me, but apparently some people do say that.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .