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The English Language is Insane: the Yes/No dilemma

Updated on February 6, 2014

The Yes/No comprehension Quiz


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Introduction to Yes/No Dilemma

English learners love yes/no questions. English teachers at once love and curse their simplicity. Every question has two possible answers, yes or no. Easy, right?

Many people who take that quiz will find it extremely easy. Some of those people who find it easy will also have failed it. Those people are probably quite certain that it’s the quiz, and not them, that’s wrong. And some people will find the quiz difficult and confusing.

What’s so difficult about this quiz’s problems? They all contain a question, and they all contain a clear answer. Surely, then, there can be no room to doubt the meaning? Yet two of the answers are, in fact, ‘unclear’, and the other two require a native level understanding of English to understand. Let’s start with the first question.

English is Exhausting

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Answering a negative question

“Can you fly?” asks Wendy.

“Yes,” answers Peter. “Can't you fly?”

“No,” answers Wendy.

The first question and answer is very straight forward. ‘can you?’ ‘yes’. The second question is more difficult. ‘can’t you?’ ‘no’. Without over-thinking it, or trying to unravel it, can Wendy fly or not? A native English speaker, having heard the question and answer, would say ‘no, she can’t’. A non-native English speaker, (or a pedantic native English speaker) might say ‘in fact, she says she can fly’. In theory they would be right. In practice they would be wrong.

The difficulty is that Wendy is not saying what she means.

Literally, Peter is saying ‘you cannot fly’ and Wendy is saying ‘that is wrong’. If ‘you cannot fly’ is wrong, ‘you can fly’ must be right. The literal and logical conclusion is that Wendy can fly. So why did anyone who put that as the answer get it wrong?

The English language doesn't always mean what it says. It doesn't matter if the question was a positive ‘can you?’ or a negative ‘can’t you?’. The answer of yes or no doesn't care whether the question was ‘can’ or ‘can’t’. Yes always means ‘yes I can’, and no always means ‘no I can’t’.

Can you fly? Yes, I can.

Can’t you fly? Yes, I can.

The same holds true in the second question.

“Didn't you go to the party?”

“Yes” said Mary.

Mary may be literally saying ‘yes, I did not go to the party’, but what she means is ‘yes, I did go’. Yes always means ‘yes, I did’. ‘Yes, I can’. ‘Yes, I am’. No always means ‘no, I didn't.’ ‘No, I can’t’. ‘No, I’m not’. So, if the answer doesn't change with the question, why does the question change? Why would anyone ask ‘can’t you fly?’ instead of ‘can you fly?’?

Why do we ask negative questions?

Can you fly? Can’t you fly? What is the difference between the questions? The answer doesn’t change. So why do we ask negative questions?

The basic meaning remains the same, but the connotations change. We ask a negative question for several reasons:

  1. Confirmation. This is the main reason we ask negative questions. We think something might be true and we want to be sure. These are questions, not statements. “Haven’t I seen you before?” “Didn’t you go to the party?” “You like horses, don’t you?”
  2. Surprised confirmation. We just heard something that made us doubt something we thought to be true. These are questions, not statements. “Of course I can fly. Can’t you?” “Weren’t you there? I thought you were.” “Didn’t you go home already?”
  3. Politeness. We want to invite someone to join us or to make conversation. We expect a ‘yes’ but we aren’t demanding one, and we don’t always get one. A ‘no’ is often accompanied by ‘sorry’. These ‘questions’ are said as statements. “Won’t you come in?” “Won’t you try this cake?” “Isn’t the garden beautiful?”
  4. Opinions. We want to say something nice. We want to say something mean. We want to sound polite when we say something impolite. Sometimes we say a seemingly nice thing through clenched teeth. Or we say something awful but with a smile and we mean it as a compliment. Sometimes we give a genuine compliment. These ‘questions’ are said as statements. They are our opinions and we don’t expect any answer, except maybe ‘thank you’. “Aren’t you clever?” “Aren’t you a little brat.” “Aren’t you pretty.”
  5. Inclusion. Similar to opinions, but we expect an answer. We ask a question just to hear other people agree. It’s a way of starting a conversation. It’s a way to include the people around you in your opinions. These ‘questions’ are said as statements. “Isn’t he an ugly baby?” “Wasn’t that fun?” “Isn’t my dress lovely?”

Basically, we ask a negative question when we think we know the answer or want the answer to be ‘yes’. We ask a positive question when we have no idea what the answer is or when we thought the answer was no and are surprised that it might be ‘yes’.

In most cases, the answer we will hear to a negative question is ‘yes’. As said before, this always means a positive ‘yes I am’, ‘Yes I can’, ‘Yes I do’. No always means ‘No I’m not’, ‘No I can’t’, ‘No I don’t’.

Except when it doesn’t. Which brings me to question three in the quiz and the reason why the answer is sometimes ‘unclear’.

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Answering a negative statement.

“You don’t like fish?”

“Yes,” said Luke.

If the question had been ‘Don’t you like fish?’ then a yes answer would mean ‘yes I do like fish’. The question, however, isn’t worded like a question. It’s worded like a statement. There are a few reasons to ask such a question.

  1. Surprise. The statement is often said as both a question and an exclamation. Something we thought was true has just proven to be false. “You don’t like chocolate?!” “Fairies aren’t real?!” “You won’t come home for Christmas?!”
  2. Denial. The statement is a fact we are sure of. Except we’ve seen or heard something to contradict it. “You don’t like fish, why are you eating it?” “You don’t like this movie? But it’s brilliant!”
  3. Confirmation. We just saw or heard something. We aren’t surprised. We just want confirmation that what we saw or heard is true. “I hear you don’t like fish?” “You went to the movies today; you weren’t at school?”

The answer to a statement is more complicated than the answer to a question. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can be confusing. Is Luke answering the question and means ‘Yes, I do like fish’, or is Luke agreeing with the statement and means ‘Yes, I don’t like fish’?

A question always demands a positive or negative answer. A statement asks if you agree or disagree with the statement. With that in mind, a ‘yes’ probably means ‘Yes, I don’t like fish’. Except it might not, because native English speakers are so used to ‘yes’ always meaning ‘Yes, I do’. Is Luke answering the question or agreeing with the statement? It’s impossible to know.

In this situation, a follow-up question might follow:

“You don’t like fish?”

“Yes,” said Luke.

“Yes you do, or yes you don’t?”

“Yes, I don’t like fish,” answers Luke.

Speaking clear, full answers can help to avoid confusion and mistakes. Of course, it also helps if the question isn’t confusing. Which brings me to the final quiz problem.

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Question stacking

“Are you OK? Are you hurt?”

“No,” answers John.

The difficulty with John’s answer is that he gave one answer to two questions. Most likely, when this happens, John is answering the last question he heard. That said, he could also be trying to say that something is wrong. ‘No’ is a negative answer, being hurt is a negative experience. Or he could be trying to answer the first question he heard and be ignoring the second.

Native English speakers, non-native English speakers, students, teachers, and pedantics alike would all find this confusing. It isn't just that there’s two questions asked at the same time; it’s that the two questions contradict each other. A ‘yes’ to one would mean a ‘no’ to the other. You cannot be OK and be hurt. Arguably, you could be ‘not hurt’ and ‘not OK’, but it’s much less likely than ‘not hurt’ and ‘OK’. Ultimately a single answer to two questions answers neither of them.

There are a few reasons for stacking questions like this:

  1. High emotion. The questioner is frantic with worry. The questioner is giddy and excited and doesn't want to wait on an answer.
  2. Interrogation. The questioner is bombarding someone with questions. They want to intimidate them.
  3. One-sided conversation. An answer isn't expected. Maybe a child is speaking to their dolls. Maybe a nurse is speaking to an unconscious patient.

In cases of question stacking, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is seldom clear or helpful. The best way to avoid confusion is for the questioner to avoid question stacking, and for the questionee to give full sentence answers.

Are you OK? Are you hurt?”

“No,” answers John, “I’m not hurt. I’m OK.”

Conclusion

Yes/No questions are thought to be the simplest form of question. As shown by these problems, they can in fact be confusing and unclear. English learners find negative questions counter-intuitive. Everyone finds negative statement questions confusing. Question stacking is confusing in any language.

The best answer to the yes/no dilemma is to never answer with yes/no. Give a full answer. Yes I can fly. No I’m not ok. I agree. Students will get more out of their English lessons, Teachers will rejoice that their students are speaking, and better understanding will be had by all. When in doubt, in the classroom or in the real world, speak clearly and ask for more.

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© 2014 Mir Foote

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