Using ‘zenzen’ in Japanese is no problem at all

by Akemi Tanahashi and Hitomi Tashiro

Contributing Writers

Zenzen shiranakatta yo. (I had absolutely no idea.)

Situation 1: At the office, Mr. Sere tells Mr. Mita that Mita’s ex-girlfriend is getting married soon.

セレ: 経理課の川口さん、来月結婚するんだって。

三田: ええっ、全然知らなかったよ。

Sere: Keirika no Kawaguchi-san, raigetsu kekkon-suru-n datte.

Mita: Ee’? Zenzen shiranakatta yo.

Sere: I heard Ms. Kawaguchi in the accounting section is getting married next month.

Mita: What? I had absolutely no idea.

Today we will introduce some of the usages of the adverb 全然 (ぜんぜん, never/not at all), which is often heard in conversation. 全然 with the negative form of verb or adjective X emphasizes “no/not/never X,” as in Mr. Mita’s 全然知らなかった (I had absolutely no idea) in Situation 1, or as in: この荷物(にもつ)は重(おも)そうに見(み)えるけど、全然重くない (This baggage looks heavy, but actually, it’s not heavy at all). 全然 is also used to modestly deny a counterpart’s compliment or gratitude, as in the following conversation: 「この度(たび)は、ほんとうにお世話(せわ)になりました。」 「いえいえ、とんでもないことです。全然お役(やく)に立(た)てなくて…。」 “Thank you very much for everything that you did for me.” “No, no, don’t mention it. I’m sorry that I couldn’t help you at all.”

Situation 2: Mitsuo comes home after taking a mock university exam.

母: 試験どうだった? 難しかったでしょ?

光男: いや、全然簡単だったよ。満点かも。

Haha: Shiken dō datta? Muzukashikatta desho?

Mitsuo: Iya, zenzen kantan datta yo. Manten kamo.

Mom: How was the exam? It was difficult, wasn’t it?

Mitsuo: No, it was quite easy. I might get full marks.

全然 usually goes with the negative form of a verb or adjective, but it is occasionally used with affirmative forms. For example, in Situation 2, the mother asks if the exam was difficult. Mitsuo answers, saying that was never difficult, but was in fact very easy. In order to mean 全然難(むずか)しくない (never difficult), he says 全然簡単(かんたん) (quite easy). Similarly, the words that have connotation of negation like だめ (no good) or ちがう (different/not the same) are often used. Example: 実際(じっさい)に見(み)てみたら、予想(よそう)していたのとは全然違(ちが)っていた (When I actually saw it, it was completely different from what I’d expected). Also, it can be used to emphasize the fact that the degree of difference is large, as in: こっちのほうが全然大(おお)きいよ (This is far bigger than that). Moreover, in very casual conversations, 全然 is sometimes used to mean just “very” even without this kind of context, as in この映画、全然おもしろかったなあ (The movie was quite interesting, wasn’t it?).

Bonus Dialogue: Continued from Situation 1.

セレ: 三田(みた)くん、この間(あいだ)まで彼女(かのじょ)と つきあっていたから、ショックだろうね…。

三田: いや、全然(ぜんぜん)! いやだな、セレくんが失恋 (しつれん)したみたいな顔(かお)しないでよ。ぼくは 全然平気(へいき)だから。

セレ: 三田くんと別(わか)れてからこんなに早(はや)く結婚(けっこん)するなんて…。もしかして、二(ふた)またかけていたのかも。

三田: たぶん、そうだよ。…きっと、そうに違いない。

セレ: ずいぶん不誠実(ふせいじつ)だよな。許(ゆる)せないよ。

三田: セレくん、そんなに怒(おこ)らないでよ。ぼくは、そんなこと全然問題(もんだい)にしていないから。

セレ: 三田くんって、ずいぶん寛大(かんだい)な人(ひと)なんだね。すばらしい。見直(みなお)したよ。

三田: いや、全然そんなことないから。ただ、お互(たが)い様(さま)だから、仕方(しかた)ないって思(おも)っている だけで…。

セレ: え? 三田くんも二またかけていたわけ? もう、しょうがないカップルだなあ。別れてよかったよ。

Sere: Mita, since you went out with her, her marriage must come as a shock …

Mita: No, not at all! Oh no, don’t look so brokenhearted, Sere. I’m quite OK.

Sere: But she’s getting married so soon after she broke up with you. Perhaps she was two-timing you.

Mita: Maybe you’re right. … In fact, I bet she was.

Sere: She’s really dishonest. I can’t forgive her.

Mita: Sere, don’t get so angry. I don’t care about it at all.

Sere: Mita, you’re such a generous person. It’s wonderful. I should give you more credit.

Mita: No, that’s not true at all. I only say that because I’m thinking that we were both in the same boat.

Sere: What? You mean you were two-timing her, too? What a hopeless couple. It’s a good thing you broke up.