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Is there a difference between “нечего” and “ничего” when used in the literal sense of “nothing”?

I see that both can mean “nothing”, that “ничего” can also mean “not bad” or “no problem!” and that “нечего” can also mean “(there is) no use”.

However, from these usage examples (in English Wiktionary) I get the impression that there could be a difference, perhaps that “нечего” is used with and indication of what is lacking while “ничего” can stand on its own:

Мне нечего делать ― There is nothing for me to do.

Что с ним? — Ничего. ― What’s the matter with him? — Nothing.

  • 3
    We spell both with г ничего, нечего – V.V. Nov 26 '20 at 15:52
  • @V.V.: Thanks for pointing it out. How silly of me: I new that perfectly well, just had the sound in my ear! – PJTraill Nov 26 '20 at 22:00
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The difference is grammatical: нечего is a predicate and ничего is an object:

  1. Ему нечего сказать.
  2. Он не имеет ничего сказать.

Both mean 'He has nothing to say' and and while (2) resembles the English sentence more, (1) is a lot more idiomatic.

Also note the difference in emphasis:

  • ничего́
  • не́чего
  • Thank-you for the explanation. Do you think you could extend your answer with a link to somewhere where I can find out (preferably in English or German), more about (a) the grammatical properties of the two words and (b) the concept of a predicate in Russian grammar? (English Wiktionary calls both of them pronouns!) – PJTraill Nov 27 '20 at 12:09
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  1. The particles НЕ and НИ differ in meaning: НЕ – a negative particle, and НИ – an amplifying particle, which amplifies the negation already indicated.

This is the most important thing, and you should always keep this in mind when solving all private problems. Grammatically, the particle НИ can be a prefix in negative pronouns, but it can be a separate particle, and it is also included in the union НИ...НИ (NEITHER ... NOR).

  1. Мне нечего делать. НЕ – negative particle (as a prefix). Я ничего не делаю. The particle НЕ before the verb denotes negation, and the particle НИ in the pronoun reinforces negation.

Что с ним такое? Как ты себя чувствуешь? – Ничего. Here we have in mind: ничего не случилось, всё нормально, всё в порядке.

Хочешь что-то сказать? – Нет, ничего. (Ничего не хочу сказать).

Thus, negation is not always explicitly denoted, but it is implied.

  1. There are pairs of negative pronouns: ничего – нечего, ничему – нечему, ничем – нечем, ни о чем – не о чем. The stress in pronouns falls on НЕ, but does not fall on НИ.

Examples (a pronoun has the meaning of an object in all cases):

Почему ты ничего не делаешь? – Мне нечего делать.

Он ничему не удивляется. – Его нечем удивить.

Он ничем не интересуется. – Ему просто нечем заняться.

Она ни о чем не рассказывает. – Может быть, ей не о чем рассказывать.

  1. Difficult question

(1) Ему было нечего сказать. The value of an object.

(2) Нечего говорить, если не знаешь. The value of the predicate.

Why does the pronoun "нечего" have a different meaning? How did an ordinary object become a predicate? But this is a separate topic.

  • Thank-you! This may take me a while to absorb. In the meanwhile, one question: what do you mean by “when solving all private problems”? – PJTraill Jan 11 at 19:43
  • The comparative use of the particles НЕ and НИ is one of the most difficult topics in Russian orthography. It is necessary to know not only the GENERAL difference in the meaning of these particles, but also to know the grammar of those sentences and combinations where they are used. I will give ONE PARTICULAR EXAMPLE. Here are two suggestions. (1) Ворону отведено НИ МНОГО НИ МАЛО – триста лет жизни! The raven has no less than three hundred years of life! – Sharon Jan 13 at 20:10
  • (2) Десять лет – это НЕ МНОГО И НЕ МАЛО. Ten years is neither long nor short. In the first sentence, a stable combination with the union НИ…НИ. НИ has the value of amplified negation. Other examples: neither alive nor dead, neither fish nor meat, neither sit nor stand up. In the second sentence, a simple negation of two opposite signs. – Sharon Jan 13 at 20:10

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