Answering Negative Questions

Answering Negative Questions

From Hector: I am not sure how to answer when I am speaking to a client from the USA and the client asks, “You aren’t going to have trouble finishing this integration by tomorrow are you?”

Hector, thanks for the question regarding negative style questions. You didn’t think that I would forget you, did you? I don’t think this type of question is used in Spanish but I will try and explain it to you because it is very common in English.

Read the following story and you will know how to answer. If you are still confused, contact me again and I will make certain you understand.

A number of years ago I gave a grammar test to a few of my students that resulted in a major communication problem. This was my first experience with problems in answering negative questions.

The test was to be 30 minutes long, but at about the 20-minute mark I saw that one student was sitting back in her chair, arms crossed, with pen on her desk.

It seemed obvious to me that she was finished.

What followed was at first confusing then humorous as I figured out what the problem was. I looked at this student and began to speak to her.

Our conversation went as follows:

Teacher: You don’t need more time, do you?

Student: Yes

Teacher: Oh, you do need more time?

Student: No, I don’t.

Teacher: Oh, sorry I thought that you said that you did need more time, but you don’t do you?

Student: Yes

Teacher: Ok, now I’m confused. Do you or don’t you need more time to complete the test?

Student: No, I don’t need more time.

Teacher: Then why did you say that you needed more time?

Student: I didn’t say that I needed more time.

Teacher: You did. I asked if you needed more time and you said yes.

Student: No, you said, “You don’t need more time, do you?”, and I answered, yes.

Teacher: Ok, now I’m completely confused. I don’t know why you don’t understand me.

Student: I’m confused too, I don’t know why you don’t understand me.

At that point we both started laughing, she was an excellent student at an advanced level.

Why were we having so much confusion?

Do you see the problem?

Explanation

The problem is a second language student’s concept of answering negative questions.

We ask questions in the usual form when we don’t know the answer. If I didn’t think I knew the answer I would have said, “Do you need more time?”, but because she seemed to be finished, I used a negative formed question, and said “You don’t need more time, do you?” expecting her to agree by saying “No, I don’t need more time”. To me, a “yes” answer meant that she did need more time. This was her usual way of answering negative questions.

When answering negative questions, such as “You don’t need more time, do you?” she responded  “yes”, agreeing with my statement, meaning “Yes, I don’t need more time”.

You may want to look up the various uses of rhetorical questions.

We often use negative questions when the answer seems to be obvious, rather than looking for an answer. In which case, we are expecting a reply in the negative as well.

On a very cold or rainy day, we might say, “It isn’t a very nice day today, is it?” expecting “No it isn’t” not “Yes (it isn’t)”

If someone appears to be sitting at home and comfortable or sick, we might say “You don’t feel like going out shopping now do you?” expecting the answer to be “No, I don’t.” not “Yes (I don’t).”

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