Questions put in the negative

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Mar 27 15:44:45 UTC 2008

For a moment, I thought I was in Japan ...

At the supermarket yesterday, I was looking for 8-ounce packages of
smoked salmon, and found only the 4-ounce packages.  I asked the man
at the seafood counter, which was around the corner, "You don't carry
the 8-ounce packages any more, do you?"  When he replied "yes", I was
disappointed and started to wheel my cart away.  But I heard his
voice behind me, saying "Come with me."  He had emerged from behind
the counter to show me that the 8-ounce packages were available.

Clearly I had very quickly, without any cogitation, assumed he meant
to agree with my hypothetical:  "You don't carry them any more?";
"Yes, we don't carry them any more."  He clearly meant "Yes, we do
have them still" -- perhaps an agreement with the second part of my
question, "do you?".

My bad: two questions in one -- and one negative, one positive.  If I
had asked only "Don't you carry the 8-ounce packages any more?" and
he had responded "Yes", I would at least have been uncertain!  "Yes,
I agree with you, we don't", or "Yes, we do carry them"? -- and asked
for clarification.  (If he had responded "No", I would have been sure
they didn't carry them.)


The American Dialect Society -

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