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For example, I want to make sure that Tom was not in Professor X's class. However, I can't ask:

Wasn't Tom in Professor X's class last semester?

Because that means I think Tom WAS in Professor X's class.

Of course I can say:

Tom wasn't in Professor X's class, was he?

But I would like to know if there's a more concise way to ask the question.

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It might be a typo, but the first sentence assumes you think Tom was in Prof. X class last semester, not that he is now. –  nico May 3 '11 at 16:33
    
@nico: I've edited the question to clarify what I think @ablmf is asking. –  Marthaª May 3 '11 at 17:19
    
If you're really keen to find the most concise way of asking, just say what you think is the case, with interrogative intonation. You don't actually need to tack ", was he" or ", wasn't he" on the end. –  FumbleFingers May 3 '11 at 17:47
    
"Tom's not a mutant, right?" ;) –  Kevin May 3 '11 at 18:06
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@Bogdan: I'm sure the number of exercises you had to do far outweigh the frequency of needing to use/understand it in real life (it's so testable), but it's not -nobody-. –  Mitch May 3 '11 at 18:54
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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The only more concise way to ask it that I can think of is

Was Tom in Professor X's class?

However, this changes what you're asking from confirming your belief that he was not to asking in a neutral fashion (that is, you have no a priori belief).

If you're wanting to keep it as a confirmation, something like your second option above is about as good as it gets:

Tom wasn't in Professor X's class, right?

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As pointed out in my Answer, your version is only neutral given neutral intonation and stress. And tacking , right? onto the end of an interrogative is hardly the right advice to give someone apparently looking for better command of English. It's 'downmarket' speech, to say the least. I'm disappointed both that OP accepted your Answer, and that several others upvoted it. –  FumbleFingers May 3 '11 at 22:06
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OP assumes that

Wasn't Tom in Professor X's class?

is a 'loaded' question. It implies the speaker thinks Tom was in the class, and therefore expects a positive confirmation from whoever is being asked.

But OP also assumes that

Was Tom in Professor X's class?

is a 'neutral' question, simply because that's the default way we parse the question when we read it. But it's a spoken question! To make it 'loaded' in the 'negative', the speaker simply stresses the first word WAS!

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Does "Was Tom not in Professor X's class" ask what you need? I think this is slightly different from the contraction "wasn't Tom..." and asks confirmation of Tom's non-presence.

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I disagree: "Was Tom not in ..." and "Wasn't Tom in ..." are both asking for negation, i.e. they imply that you believe Tom was in the class. –  Marthaª May 3 '11 at 17:16
    
@Martha: Well, my mileage varies here. On a purely subjective level, I hear the first as requesting a simple statement of Tom's presence or presence, whereas the second implies some disbelief on the part of the questioner that Tom was not present. That is to say, I tend to hear the questions "Was Tom in..." and "Was Tom not in..." as neutral, while I hear "Wasn't Tom in..." as looking for confirmation of a belief. But, as I say the difference is slight and may be purely subjective. –  PSU May 3 '11 at 17:40
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"Tom wasn't in Professor X's class, right?"

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It is my understanding that our friend Thomas was was not in Professor X's class. Do you believe this is correct?

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How is this more concise? :) –  Marthaª May 3 '11 at 21:15
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