Questions put in the negative

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Fri Mar 28 14:54:05 UTC 2008

Yes, I was hoping someone would mention such papers.

As for Japanese:  Before I served on an ISO technical standards
committee having Japanese membership, I had learned about the
differing responses to negative questions in Japanese vs. English.  I
was amused when a member of the committee put a question in the
negative to the Japanese participant, expecting an answer that would
support his position on an issue, and he was startled to receive what
he thought was disagreement.  (I considered him an especially
uncultivated Yahoo, and this was another confirmation.)


At 3/28/2008 03:30 AM, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>Surely someone has written papers on this. I have seen
>misunderstandings happen a number of times. The best example is
>probably "Do you mind...?" where either a yes or a no means it's okay.
>(If it's not okay, you have to give an explanation. Even a firm tone
>of voice and "Yes, I do" require an explanation to avoid being thought
>of as very odd.) FWIW, misunderstandings arise in Japanese as well
>when you get past simple negative questions into more complex ones. BB
>On Mar 27, 2008, at 8:10 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>>Wilson, if I had asked you just "You don't carry the 8-ounce packages
>>any more?" (rising inflection, to make it a question) and I answered
>>"yes" (both speaking English as best we can), what would you take my
>>"yes" to mean?
>>I -- perhaps being strange -- took it, when supplemented by the "do
>>you?", to mean he agreed with me.  What surprised me about myself, in
>>retrospect, is that I didn't pause to think it over.
>>At 3/27/2008 10:38 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:
>>>Strange. It seems perfectly clear to me that, in a case like this,
>>>"yes" *has* to mean that they *do* still carry the 8-ounce packages.
>>>However, if this conversation were to be carried on in Russian, then
>>>the reply, "da," would mean, "Yes, (you are correct; we don't carry
>>>the 8-ounce packages, anymore.)," whereas the reply, "niet," would
>>>mean, "No, (you are incorrect; we do carry the 8-ounce packages,
>>>On Thu, Mar 27, 2008 at 11:44 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at>
>>>>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>>>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>>>Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
>>>>Subject:      Questions put in the negative
>>>>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
>>>>the 8-ounce packages any more, do you?"  When he replied "yes", I
>>>>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
>>>>for clarification.  (If he had responded "No", I would have been
>>>>they didn't carry them.)
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