Ты ничего! Или нечто?

by Olga Godwin


"А ты ничего!" 
What?! Are they trying to insult me?! Don’t worry. It’s just a flirty way to say they like you.


Russian negative pronouns and adverbs are among the most thorny topics for international students. Even just the ones derived from the pronoun что may fill your head with a bunch of questions:

- What is the difference between ничего́ and не́чего? The Russian-English dictionary says they both mean “nothing”!
- And how about ничто́?
- How come не́чего has all the case forms except for the nominative?
- What kind of answer is that when I simply ask “How are you?” and they respond with “Ничего́”?!

If you’ve tried to learn all these forms at once using grammar tables and ended up more confused than you had been, let me suggest a different way to approach them. Try to build a little safe island first - figure out the meaning of a few popular phrases and remember them. From there, you can gradually expand your knowledge. 


Как дела? – Ничего́!
This answer means OK. Why do people say it? You can think of it as ничего плохого (nothing bad) or ничегo особенного (nothing special). Perhaps Russian people are a little superstitious and don't want to jinx themselves by saying "Good" or "Great". Grammatically, ничего here works as an adverb similar to неплохо, нормально, answering the question “как?” 


Извините! – Ничего!
In this example, ничего is a participle with the meaning “It’s not important, never mind.”


But what do Russian people mean when they say, "А ты ничего" ? A slightly playful intonation with a drawn “o” at the end will assure you it is a compliment. Here the adverb ничего works as an understatement. The phrase is a bit on the informal side of the scale, but it's not insulting at all. No one meant to say, “You are nothing. A null.” 

If someone meant to say such a thing, it would be “Ты ничто́!”
Very dramatic, indeed. 😊


Sometimes you can also hear “Ты не́что!” 
In this phrase, the pronoun не́что has the emphasis on the 1st syllable (please note that it is E and not И). It doesn’t have a negative meaning. It’s an indefinite pronoun. Literally, it means an unknown thing, and when someone addresses you with a mixture of surprise, admiration, and a bit of humor, they can use this phrase. It’s similar to the English “You are something else” and can sometimes be used sarcastically. How can you tell? Intonation and non-verbal cues such as facial expression along with the context of the conversation should help. 

Whew! Now you can be sure you won’t get into an embarrassingly ambiguous conversation with these pronouns and adverbs. When you feel confident with them, you can continue studying their other meanings and forms. Some suggested grammar topics include:

  • the difference between не́чего and ничего́,
  • the case forms of the pronoun не́чего,
  • the usage of ничто́ with prepositions: ни c че́м, ни о чём etc.

    Good luck with your studies and come back in a while for our new blog posts! 😊