Questions put in the negative

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Mar 28 16:40:42 UTC 2008

At 10:54 AM -0400 3/28/08, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>Yes, I was hoping someone would mention such papers.

also books, or at least book:

Pope, Emily (1976) Questions and Answers in English.  The Hague: Mouton.

(revised version of her 1972 MIT dissertation, and despite the title
covers this issue in cross-linguistic terms)

>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.)
>>The American Dialect Society -
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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