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English is not my native-tongue, so I always find it hard to grasp the concept of "question tags" and more importantly the way to answer to them. Let me explain with the help of this situation -

I am supposed to complete my homework and I haven't. My mom suspects that I haven't and asks me the below question. I want to confess that I haven't. What should I answer?

Mom : You didn't finish your homework, did you?

Me : Yes, I haven't [OR] No, I haven't?

I've always thought that it is "Yes, I haven't" because the questioner has already found out that I haven't and I should just assert it by saying 'Yes'. But a friend of mine says that it is "No, I haven't" because I am effectively answering the question "did you?".

Which of us is correct?

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5  
You could just do your homework and avoid the issue all together. –  Sam Apr 1 '11 at 13:36
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Now I am earwormed with "Yes, We Have No Bananas" –  Kate Gregory Apr 1 '11 at 13:49
    
Don't feel too bad about the confusion here. Native speakers get themselves into all sorts of trouble with these sorts of questions and answers. The answer you do want to avoid is simply saying "yes" or "no." Clarifying with "No, I haven't" helps a great deal. Even if you pick incorrectly, it will be a flag for the other person that something may be off. –  MrHen Apr 1 '11 at 15:21
1  
I just want to point out another grammatical error in this question. English speakers rarely switch auxiliary verbs when answering a question, so "You didn't finish ..." should be answered with "No, I didn't" and "You haven't finished ..." would be answered with "No, I haven't". This mistake is corrected without even being mentioned in most of the answers. –  Peter Shor Apr 2 '11 at 12:13
    
@Peter Shor : Oh! I didn't notice that! It's my fault. A typo. I understand that native speakers don't switch auxillaries. What I intended to add was "Me : Yes, I didn't [OR] No, I didn't?" –  MediumOne Apr 3 '11 at 8:26
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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

When someone asks a question by stating a negative fact, it would seem logical to answer affirmatively because the fact is true. However, it is more common to answer negatively to confirm the negativity.

Mom: You didn't finish your homework, did you?

You: No, I didn't

Mom: You finished your homework, didn't you?

You: No, I didn't

In both cases the Mom wants to know about the status of the homework and the questions are equivalent to

Mom: Did you finish your homework?

(The reason to use the tag form is to communicate the speaker's assumptions or surprise or expectations about the homework rather than just asking for a status update).

There is more explanation about this here.

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The question is a classic ESL problem. Most language answer either '(positive response word)' to signal that the implied answer is correct, or '(negative response word)' when it's incorrect. English expects an answer of the form 'Yes, it is' or 'No, it isn't', the first word matching the following phrase in negativity rather than telling you you are correct or not. English sounds illogical here if you leave off the following phrase. But in English you don't leave it off. –  Mitch Apr 1 '11 at 14:52
    
I take it that "No, I didn't" is the correct usage. Nevertheless, I hope you all understood the crux of my problem. For the question "You didn't finish your homework, did you?", I try to reply, by habit, to the former part (You didn't finish your homework) rather than the question tag by saying "Yes, I didn't". To put it in another way, I consider the questions "You didn't finish your homework, did you?" and "You didn't finish your homework, right?" the same and reply with "Yes, I didn't". –  MediumOne Apr 1 '11 at 16:42
    
@MediumOne: That's right, "No, I didn't" is the correct way to answer the question. It does seem illogical. As @Mitch says the key is to include the "did/didn't" in the answer and match the positive/negative yes/no to that. Though in practice native speakers will often leave off the last part of the sentence because it is implied. This gives the confusing "You didn't finish your homework, did you?" "No." exchange. A native speaker will understand the implied "I didn't". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Apr 1 '11 at 19:07
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I personally think you should reply "No I didn't", because you didn't finish your homework.

You should not base your answer on the question tag itself, but rather on the actual answer to (in this case) "Did you finish your homework?"...

Look, I got a nice example from a site. Both these question tags are negative, but still the answer changes:

  • The earth is bigger than the moon, isn't it? Yes, it is.
  • The earth is bigger than the sun, isn't it? No, it isn't!

EDIT (@MediumOne in the comments):
That doesn't really matter and I'll tell you why: when I reply to a question with a question tag, I don't really mind the question tag itself. I'm not a native speaker so I don't know how native speakers behave. But I think the way is to look at the question, is it negative or positive? Let's try, for example, with a "negative" question:
"You didn't go to the Mall, did you?".
If you say "No I didn't", you are CONFIRMING the question (you didn't go to the Mall), on the contrary, if you say "yes, I did", you are DENYING the question (you did go to the Mall).

The same goes for a "positive question" but on the opposite.
EX: "You did go to the Mall, didn't you?".
If you say "No I didn't", in this case, you are not confirming like before, but denying, and so if you say "Yes I did" you are confirming.

Summary: If the question (not question tag, just the actual question) is negative, a "no" confirms, if the question is positive, "yes" confirms. (If some native speaker can say something about this, it would be nice.)

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1  
Exactly. In this, English is different from a number of languages. We also lack a word like French "si" and German "doch", which means "Yes, contrary to what you have just suggested or asked". –  Colin Fine Apr 1 '11 at 13:37
    
You should not base your answer on the question tag itself, but rather on the actual answer to (in this case) "Did you finish your homework?"... If I were to reply to the former part of the question (You didn't finish your homework), then I would be answering "Yes". But from this post and the comments, I learned that I should be saying "No, I didn't". –  MediumOne Apr 1 '11 at 16:43
    
There is something inexplicably wrong with your example sentences. You have selected sentences which are always true or always false. In these cases, I am confident I won't make a mistake with the answer. It is those cases that can either be true or false that cause me problems. –  MediumOne Apr 2 '11 at 6:09
    
@MediumOne: My comment was getting too long, I'll edit my own answer, check above. –  Alenanno Apr 2 '11 at 9:09
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Question tags can be phrased ambiguously, but generally native speakers intuit the answer that gets them out of trouble.

You didn't finish your homework, did you?

The answer that gets you out of trouble here is "Yes, I did."

This can be confusing for non-natives. For example, in Japanese, the construction that would translate as "Aren't you going to the store?" would be answered with "Yes" (if you weren't going).

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The OP is asking which answer would be correct in case he did not finish his homework... –  RegDwigнt Apr 1 '11 at 13:26
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I am a little confused by your answer. :) I don't want the answer that gets me out of trouble. I want to confess that I haven't done my homework. So, when I am asked "You didn't finish your homework, did you?", should I say "Yes, I haven't" or "No, I haven't"? My opinion is that "Yes, I haven't" is correct (like in the Japanese construction you mentioned). Am I right with my belief? –  MediumOne Apr 1 '11 at 13:28
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protected by RegDwigнt Apr 23 at 14:33

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