4

To the best of my knowledge both sentences are correct. Does the order of "нет" and "ничего" mean anything or is one used more often by native speakers?

5

The difference is very subtle. I would say something like the following, others may disagree.

У них ничего нет

Emphasis on нет. So if you are speaking about a shop, this empathizes that while at first glance the shop may have some goods, they do not have anything you are looking for. Or they may pretend to have something which is untrue.

Or, in other words. You initially expected or were told they have something but learned they don't. You empathize this.

У них нет ничего

Emphasis on ничего. This empathizes the shop does not have anything. Not only things you are looking for, but it is empty totally, they do not even pretend to have something.

Or, in other words, you expected they do not have things you want, but learned that they do not have even things you do not need, they just do not have anything.

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1

The meaning is often conveyed by the intonation, yet some general rules can be detected.

E.g. in Russian syntax (just like in Finnish and Estonian) the topic-commentary strategy gives additional meaning.

E.g. a first word in a phrase is usually a topic, the rest be a sequence of [sub]commentaries organized in hierarchical order. That is, in the phrase

У них ничего нет

the topic is 'them having', then the speaker comments that with 'nothing' and then with the 'absence of nothing'.

In the phrase

У них нет ничего

the topic is, again, 'them-having', but then what is second-rank important is 'the absence', of which the speaker comments that it is the 'absence of anything'.

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1

And keep in mind that inverting the neutral word order of topic/comment (as described above) can make a statement more "emotive" - for expressing impatience, enthusiasm, or just a more informal tone. It's all very sensitive to context.

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0

Both sentences are correct, and mean essentially the same thing. The difference is in the emphasis: They don't have anything. vs. They don't have anything.

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  • 2
    The second one is wrong. It is rather "They don't have anything" – Anixx Jan 8 '16 at 22:41

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