Replying to a negative question

David A. Daniel dad at POKERWIZ.COM
Mon Dec 24 16:52:53 UTC 2007

I just read the archive article below and I think there is something wrong
with the conclusion about replying to positive and negative questions. In
the first examples of unfair language tricks, what is actually being replied
to are the tags "didn't it?" and "did it?" And you'll note that "didn't it?"
(negative) gets a positive answer in confirmation and "did it?" (positive)
gets a negative answer in confirmation. We use tags to simplify and sort of
summarize the question, making replies easier (at least theoretically). But
since none of the actual courtroom quotes involves a tag, the examples are
not relevant. If you rephrase these questions without tags, instead of "It
happened, didn't it?" you get, "Did that happen?" to which a confirming
reply would be "yes", i.e. positive to positive. But instead of "It didn't
happen, did it?" you would get  "Did that not happen?" to which, frankly, I
would be at some loss to reply in either the affirmative or the negative
with a single word. I would need to say "No, it did not happen" or "Yes, it
did happen" in order to feel I was being clear.

On Dec 24, 2007 9:32 AM, Charles Doyle <cdoyle at> wrote:
> Cf. the often-discussed paradox of how a sworn witness in a courtroom is
to answer,
> "yes" or "no," a question posed in the lawyerly formula "Is it not true
that . . . ?"

Touched on here:
(Roger Shuy, "More prosecutorial trick questions")

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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