sure + [MODAL]

1a The word sure has a lot of different meanings and nuances in spoken American English. Here, it's used in responses to questions. We echo the modal in the question, e.g. do, will, can, could, should, etc

Do you know Alan?   — I sùre dó. He's my brother.

Can you call him for me? — I sùre cán. I have his number right here.


Note that both sure and the modal are stressed in this usage: sure takes a secondary stress and the modal has the primary stress. Also note that some speakers use surely either humorously or as part of their dialect.

So now, you may be wondering what the difference is between Yes, I do and I sure do or Yes, I can and I sure can. Good question!

Well, the difference is a certain ENTHUSIASM on the part of the speaker, and this enthusiasm can take several forms. In the first example, it comes from the speaker's amusement at the fact that Alan happens to be his brother. This amusement raises his response from a plain Yes, I do to something a little more emphatic, with a slight nuance of «Haha, you're not going to believe this...». Similarly, in the second example, the speaker feels a certain sense of pride in the fact that he happens to have the number on him and is glad to be able to provide it

But it all depends on the context; in a different scenario, for instance, let's say Alan did something wrong and the speaker is as EAGER as the listener to get him on the phone and call him to task. We have a similar situation in the snippet below.


In this snippet, Andy is only too happy to provide proof of David's wrongdoing because he'd love to see him get fired. That's why he says I sure do with such relish, instead of plain, neutral Yes, I do. He can also have said As a matter of fact, I do! with the same effect.

Andy, who works at a shoe factory, sees the office bully doing something underhanded and goes to the boss. But the boss needs proof. Coincidentally, Andy does have proof and he's more than happy to let the boss know that. 


Andy: Yesterday, as I was leaving work, I saw David selling some guy shoes — our shoes — out of the trunk of his car.

Boss: That's a strong accusation, Andy. Do you have proof?

Andy: I sure do! I recorded the whole thing with my phone.

This meme came out when it was announced that former president Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID. Here we see Barack Obama sarcastically asking President Biden if he forgot to send Trump a get well card, and Joe is somewhat proud to say that he did in fact send one, and that in it, he told him to "stay positive."

This is funny because normally, we say Stay positive when someone's facing something difficult and we want them to keep a positive attitude. But in this case, Biden is being facetious and means "stay positive with COVID" in the sense of keep testing positive for COVID 😜

1b Aside from answering questions, sure is also used in response to a suggestion or friendly imperative. 

In this context, it implies «You can be sure I will!» and sounds extremely nice, and, at the same time, thankful and enthusiastic.


Say hi to your family for me. — I sure will!

Check out Dan's new book. I think you'll like it.  — I sure will!


2a Just like sure can be an enthusiastic way to say yes, conversely, it can also be a very snarky and categorical way to say no. 

Intonation plays an important role  here:

May I smoke in here?

— You sure may. We're all smokers.

— You sùre may nót. I'm allergic to smoke.


Again, you sure may is a little more enthusiastic than just say Yes, you may because the speaker is a smoker and he's happy to be able to say yes. But on the other side of the coin, You sure may not sounds especially snarky because sure makes it clear that the speaker is not a smoker, is in fact allergic to cigarette smoke, and is thus happy and eager to categorically say no. 


In all the above usages, certainly can be used in place of sure, although it tends to sound a bit more formal. And you can make it even more emphatic by adding most.

⦿ I (most) certainly will!

⦿ I (most) certainly do. He's my brother.

⦿ I (most) certainly do! I recorded the whole thing.

⦿ You (most) certainly may. We're all smokers here.

⦿ You (most) certainly may nót. I'm allergic to smoke.

2b When someone asks you for something or asks if you know something, etc. sure can also be a nice way to answer no. 

In this usage — and with the appropriate, almost apologetic intonation — it expresses a degree of regret or disappointment, so it sounds very nice. The regretful tone is necessary here because, as we saw above*, without it, it sounds like you're enthusiastic about being able to say no in a categorical, unfriendly way.


*Compare this to the example in 2a, You sure may not!, where the intonation makes it clear that smoking is out of the question... and not in the friendliest way.


Sir, do you happen to have a pen I could borrow.

I sure don't. Sorry. 

Ma'am, could you tell how to get to the subway from here?

I sure can't, hon, I'm not from around here.

I've lost my dog. Did you happen to see a chihuahua run by here?

I sure haven't, but I'll keep my eyes peeled.


3 In response to small talk and questions about experiencing or trying things, visiting places, knowing people, etc., answering with sure makes you sound more invested in the conversation and has a nuance of «What a good/interesting question» or «What a coincidence that you should ask».

Using sure in this context makes you sound a bit more enthusiastic about the question — eager to hear more. Or more enthusiastic about the conversation in general. For instance, answering No, I haven't in the snippet below would sound neutral and perhaps a bit disinterested —  like you haven't heard of it and you're not necessarily interested in hearing more about it.


Have you tried the new AI app for language learning?

— I sure haven't. Is it good?


In this example, for instance, it may imply that you've heard of the app, but haven't gotten around to trying it, or it may just express a surprised curiosity if you're hearing about the app for the first time and don't even know what it is. It's just a little more enthusiastic, upbeat, curious and conversational that just saying no.

4 In a completely different usage, sure can be used to single someone out from an entire group — often oneself. 

In all the above usages, sure has been used by two different people: one asks a question or makes a suggestion, and a different person responds with sure

However, in this usage, the same speaker makes a statement or asks a question and then follows it up with a short sentence containing sure. In this usage, sure singles out one person or one group from the others. For instance, let's say you and a friend attend a lecture. The speaker is from another country and has a very thick accent. You turn to your friend after the first five minutes and say:


Are you getting any of this? I sure ain't*.


In other words, «Are you understanding anything she's saying? Because I, for one, am notHere, the speaker uses sure to single himself out from the others. He can't speak for everyone, but he is definitely not understanding the speaker.


*Note that this usage of sure has a different stress pattern from usages 1-3 above where sure has a secondary stress. In this usage, the pronoun has the primary stress and sure is completely unstressed: wé sure can't; théy sure don't; Í sure won't, etc.

When used in reference to oneself, the speaker is singling themself out because he can't speak for everyone else. When used in reference to other people, sure singles them out based on what the speaker is seeing or hearing. For instance, let's say your boss has called a noon meeting to welcome a new client. At noon, you and your secretary go to the meeting room. You didn't know the meeting included a formal lunch, but when you walk into the meeting room, you're pleasantly surprised to see that there are place settings for everyone. Then you see a coworker, Cooper, walk in with a bag of MacDonald's and you turn to your secretary and say:


Did you know they were going to serve lunch? Cooper sure didn't!


Here, you're singling Cooper out as someone who definitely didn't know they were going to be serving lunch based on the fact that he brought his own. You can use different intonations to express that you disapprove of Cooper's actions, or make fun of him, or express surprise that he'd come to a meeting with food in the first place. My recording is very neutral in this sense. I'm just making a casual observation.

As you can see, the only difference between usages 1-3 and usage 4 is what word the stress falls on. In usages 1-3, it falls on the modal after sure, and in usage 4, it falls on the (pro)noun in front of sure. Since these stresses aren't normally indicated in script, it's sometimes hard — even for a native speaker — to know which usage is intended. For instance in the meme below. Who can tell me which usage is meant and what it implies that makes this meme so funny?

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