Meanings of 全然 in Negative Sentences
全然 (ぜんぜん, zenzen) is usually used in a negative sentence and means “not … at all”. For instance, “全然できなかった” means “(I) couldn’t do at all”, and “全然わからない” means “(I) don’t understand at all”.
Meanings of 全然 in Affirmative Sentences
When 全然 is used in an affirmative sentence, there are roughly three cases, as follows:
Case 1. When 全然 is used with negative words
When 全然 is used with negative words, such as “駄目 (だめ) (not good/OK)” and “違(ちが)う (not same/correct)”, it intensifies the negative statement and means “not .. at all”, as in when it is used in negative sentences. In this case, you do not need to use “~ない” since the negative words already contain a negative sense (e.g. 全然違う means “not correct/same at all”).
Case 2. When 全然 is used with words that stress you’re fine
When 全然 is used with words meaning “(you’re) fine/OK”, it emphasises that you’re totally OK and there is no problem at all (therefore, 全然 still carries the original meaning). For instance, you can say “全然大丈夫/平気” meaning “(I’m) totally OK” when someone asks you if you’re OK, e.g. when you look tired, or say “全然オッケー/いいよ” meaning “(That’s) totally OK” when someone asks you a favour or apologise to you.
Among young generations, 全然 with this sense is used more broadly and combined with a variety of different words. For instance, when you offer to give a hand to your friends and explicitly tell them that you’re totally OK with it, you can say, “全然手伝(てつだ)うよ” meaning “I can help you (and that’s not a problem at all).” Another example is when your friends ask you if they can borrow a book or something which you don’t need anymore and don’t mind giving away to them, you can say “全然あげるよ” meaning “I can give it to you (and that’s not a problem at all)”. Note, however, that this way of using 全然 sounds very casual and may not be understood by elderly people.
Case 3. When the situation is unexpected
Lastly, 全然 is also used as an intensifier like “とても/マジ (very/really)” when the described situation is unexpected. For instance, people say “全然おいしい”, meaning “(the food is) very tasty” when they didn’t expect it to be good at all, e.g. because their friends said that the food tasted very bad. Similarly, when you have slept for 9 hours and still feel sleepy, you might say “まだ全然眠(ねむ)い” meaning “(I’m) still very sleepy”. In those cases, 全然 contains the sense that the situation is not expected at all, and still carries the negative sense in an indirect way. Note that this usage of 全然 probably sounds the most casual of all the usages, and some people may consider it to be grammatically wrong or unacceptable.
Note that, as you’d learn in standard Japanese classes, 全然 is usually used in negative sentences (全然 … ない) and the usages of 全然 in affirmative sentences would be regarded as grammatically wrong, especially in Japanese exams.
Synonyms of 全然 in Negative Sentences
There are a lot of synonyms of 全然 that mean “not ~ at all”, including “全く”, “決して” and “一切“, and they are basically interchangeable. If you want to sound very sophisticated, you may use a highly advanced synonym “ゆめゆめ (yume yume)”, e.g. “ゆめゆめ思わなかった” means “(I) didn’t think at all“.
1. 全然 in negative sentences
Because I didn’t sleep at all last night, I’m so sleepy now.
I haven’t done my homework yet al all, and so honestly this situation sucks.
2. 全然 in affirmative sentences
Ex3 (Case 1)
Although I tried various things, it didn’t go well at all
Ex4 (Case 2)
I’m 全然 (totally) fine, so don’t worry.
Ex5 (Case 3)
Everyone said this comedian was boring, but I think he is 全然 (rather very) funny.
Synonyms 全く、一切、ゆめゆめ : “not … at all”, “not … in the least”
Related words and phrases: None