Monday, October 20, 2014

Monday language: Answering negative yes/no questions in English

The English language is beyond fascinating to me.  I might be biased since it's my native language, though.  :b  Because it's my native language, though, I'm able to understand it in ways that non-native speakers will never be able to.  Of course, on the flip-side, non-native speakers will also be able to understand English in ways that I will never be able to, but I think that overall, native speakers are able to get a deeper understanding of English than non-native speakers.

This goes for all languages, of course, not just English, but I'm just going to stick with English since that's my specialty.  I'll probably talk about Japanese a bit in the future, but I'd be afraid of saying something really wrong about that language...

As an ESL teacher, I must teach my students the descriptive ways to speak English, not the prescriptive ways.  That is, I do not care to teach my students the rules of English that "Grammar Nazis" always patrol (by the way, Grammar Nazis are a serious pet peeve of mine).  I only care to teach them the rules that native speakers actually abide by.  For instance, I do not teach them not to end a sentence with a preposition.  Real native speakers of English including myself end sentences with prepositions all the time.  I want my students to sound native and to understand authentic speech, so I do not confuse them by explaining the "proper" rules of English to them.  Really, it's hard enough just teaching them authentic English.  I would not even want to try to teach them "proper" English.

There are a lot of quirks to English that are hard to explain such as the following example:

Q: Did you not go to work today?
A: No, I didn't.

Q: Did you not go to work today?
A: No, I did.

Notice anything weird?

The question is the same in both cases.  Strangely, though, both answers begin with "no."  The answers are completely opposite from each other yet they both use the word "no"!  In most other languages, the affirmative answer would begin with "yes."  If you tried to answer affirmatively with yes in English in this case, though, it actually sounds odd.

Q: Did you not go to work today?
*A: Yes, I didn't.

Conversely, you can repudiate the answer with "yes" instead of "no," and it'll sound just fine.

Q: Did you not go to work today?
A: Yes, I did.

Most people would not answer this way, but you hear it sometimes in this manner.  You never hear "Yes, I didn't," though.

This does not work with all questions, though.

Q: Did you go to work today?
A: Yes, I did.

Q: Did you go to work today?
A: No, I didn't.

You would never say:

Q: Did you go to work today?
*A: No, I did.

It's something about asking a negative yes/no question (i.e. asking if something did not happen as opposed to asking if something did happen) that allows us to affirm with a "no" instead of a "yes."  This is a quirk of English; most other languages do not do this.  As such, this is something that always confuses my students, and it's one of those things where all I can really do is just shrug, smile, and say "sorry!"

It's hard even to explain to native speakers, especially native speakers who are not also linguists.  If you took the time to read this, I hope what I said makes sense.  :b  If not, feel free to ask for further clarification.


  1. 1. I'm sorry, because I am actually a "Grammar Nazi." :P
    2. I actually understand what you're saying in your post. English is also my native language, but after picking up Tagalog and Spanish, I've come to find that English is one of the most complicated languages along with symbol-based languages (Chinese, Japanese, etc.)

    1. I guess as an ESL teacher, I've become very relaxed about grammar mistakes and very, very relaxed about prescriptive grammar rules. I don't care if they split infinitives; in fact, I sometimes encourage since sometimes split infinitives sound more natural! So, when I see people make typos or some other mistake online, it's really annoying to me when others insult their intelligence by insisting on pointing it out. But as long as you're not mean about it and really trying to be helpful, it's okay. :)

      I wrote another post about this, but all languages are pretty equally complicated. There is no research to suggest that one language is harder to learn than another. It depends more on how closely related your native language is to your target language. Spanish tends to be easy for native English speakers to pick because it's somewhat similar to English whereas Chinese and Japanese are far more difficult because they are extremely different from English including orthography.

      On the other hand, as Japanese is my second language, I can say that it was much easier for me to master Japanese pronunciation than Spanish pronunciation because Japanese has fewer sounds than English, most of which already exist in English. Spanish has some sounds that don't exist in English which makes it more difficult for me to master. Don't even get me started on trying to learn French or Chinese pronunciation...

      Sorry if that was tl;dr. I just love linguistics. D: