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I'm not sure if this is something only Americans say, but it has confused me for a long time. If someone is asked a question why do some people respond with something like, "No, yes it was"? What does "no" at the beginning mean? It seems like a contradiction.

For example:

I'm not sure if I answered your question or not.
No, yeah, that makes more sense, now!

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7 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

If you state a negative, and I disagree, I may start with "No" to contradict your statement, and then state the positive.

This is related to our general contrariness and bad manners.

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I agree. In this case, the initial "No" is probably disagreeing with the first speaker's hesitant proposition that he may not have answered the question. The following "yeah" expresses agreement that the first speaker has indeed answered whatever was being asked about. –  FumbleFingers Oct 24 '11 at 15:04
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I've thought it over and I believe this answer is the closest to how this strange wording is being used in this specific type of interaction. I think it is a shortened, informal way of saying something similar to, "No, don't think that, because you are right. That makes more sense, now." But because to English speakers that might seem too long and clumsy, they drop most of the words and simply say, "No, yeah, it makes more sense now." Thanks for your help, everyone! There were a lot of good explanations. –  Melanchthon Oct 24 '11 at 22:50
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Language Log has a couple entries on this:

Click through and read. There is no shortage of hypotheses.

I have my own hypothesis to add. I think a lot of people use the word no to mean but seriously…:

A: Where’d you get that jacket?

B: I mugged a leprechaun. No, I’ve had this thing for ages. I don’t really have much to wear with it, it’s so green.

This no has almost no negative connotation at all. It’s just sort of a verbal pivot point.

(Update: This use of no is described at length in Schegloff, Emanuel A., Getting Serious: Joke → Serious ‘no’, Journal of Pragmatics, 2001, vol. 33, no. 12, pp. 1947-1955. You can obtain the PDF here by filling out a little form.)

I think this no gets to be practically subconscious in some people’s speech, and I suspect yeah, no comes from that.

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I think what you're bringing up is the much-lampooned Vicky Pollard usage of Yeah but no but..., which is indicative of inarticulate, evasive, and uneducated speech. In OP's context it's just a perfectly standard juxtaposition where the speaker needs to convey both affirmation and negation because of the context. –  FumbleFingers Oct 24 '11 at 15:09
    
I don’t think it’s that simple. The speaker doesn’t really need to convey both affirmation and negation. You could just say, Yes, it makes sense now, right? Also, I’m not sure that the no means no here or that the yeah means yes. To me, it feels more like both mean yeah, or they’re being used together as a stock phrase meaning yeah. –  Jason Orendorff Oct 24 '11 at 15:38
    
And: however widely yeah no is lampooned, I hope we can appreciate the joke without mistaking it for reality. In real life, I’m not convinced yeah no is really indicative of evasive or uneducated speech. In fact, to me it suggests the speaker feels an obligation to fill the silence, which I correlate with educated speakers! And for some speakers yeah no is habitual—they use it often and fluently—so for them it doesn’t even indicate inarticulate speech. –  Jason Orendorff Oct 24 '11 at 15:44
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We laugh at Vicky Pollard because it's exaggerated lack of fluency in thought and ability to communicate. In OP's example I simple see an initial "No" politely disagreeing with the (hesitant, polite) proposition that the first speaker may have failed to answer a question, followed by "yeah" to indicate agreement with the answer, which was in fact properly conveyed and understood. –  FumbleFingers Oct 24 '11 at 16:15
    
Attempting to convey affirmation and negation at once would make sense in many situations, I agree. Perhaps it is a short form for: "No, you are right" which also contains both affirmation and negation. Does this seem possible? –  Melanchthon Oct 24 '11 at 21:23
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The responses here have missed an emerging usage of autonegation that is more perplexing than what they have in mind. Here is an example from Language Log:

A:"Did you like the movie?"

B:"Yeah, no, it was great!"

I catch myself doing this all the time in spoken conversations, usually when elaborating an opinion. Fortunately, speakers who use this phrase always clarify their meaning; person B's response in the above example is unambiguous, even if not technically consistent.

Why "yeah, no" is used in such a way is a matter of speculation. My theory is that the "no" is used because the speaker is elaborating in order to defending against a potential disagreement.

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Interesting. I have heard this alternative, but I never use it myself. It seems to be used much in the same way, but comes up in different contexts than "No, yeah". –  Melanchthon Oct 24 '11 at 21:25
    
+1; This is dead on in my experience. Both "No, yeah" and "Yeah, no" are a habit I have picked up personally and seem to use it most when responding to a contended point. "I think this." "What about this?!" "No, yeah, that is a good point but listen to this counterpoint." My hunches tell me that it is used as a way to say, "Neither yes nor no is an adequate response; let me explain." –  MrHen Oct 25 '11 at 4:30
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It depends on the context. Often people respond first with "no" without thinking, and then realize "yes" might be more appropriate. Maybe you could provide a certain context or quote in order to clarify.

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Here is an example: "I'm not sure if I answered your question or not." "No, yeah, that makes more sense, now!" –  Melanchthon Oct 24 '11 at 13:48
    
I read the "no" there as "I acknowledge that you are not sure, and am going on to say that ... ". It is a polite alignment with the negative sentence. –  Colin Fine Oct 24 '11 at 14:30
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I think what you are often seeing is the person thinking about the question while answering it.

The "no" may just be a verbal pause while the person is thinking through the question but feels that they need to verbalize to prevent that "awkward silence" from happening. It's similar to the drawn out "ahhh", "umm...", "ehhh..." with the difference being that the person that is answering the question is pretty sure the answer is a no, but then they think of possible affirmative answer.

Or it could be a sign that "their light bulb just lit up" and they came to the realization that they actually agree with the questioner or understood what the person was actually saying.

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These are all possibilities. Perhaps there is more than one answer. –  Melanchthon Oct 24 '11 at 21:26
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English doesn't have the "disagreeing yes" or the "agreeing no" that some languages do. For example in French "si" means "I disagree, the answer is yes" and can be used to contradict someone who has just said no to something. Without a single word to mean "disagreeing yes" or "agreeing no" we are left with "yes, no" and "no, yes" which can be used inconsistently.

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All too often people are trying to explain the answering of "yeah no" "no yeah" or even "yeah no yeah" and "no yeah no" as intricate and even subliminal multi-answers.

example analysis page for "yeah no" ...

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005523.html

I have noticed many people (usually young) on TV answering people with this contradicting reply system. Almost every time, the person only needed to answer either "no" or "yes" but did this irritating multi response due purely to socially infected habit. They have simply heard all too many other people use this ridiculous response system and now do it themselves.

Ask most people (if not all) why they replied with yes and no they will have no idea, like some folk in this example mailbag ...

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005525.html

It's in line with how most people are now using the double-negative for statements

for example ...

"i aint done nothing wrong mate" actually means "i have done something wrong mate"

All this new-age ugly speech is due mainly to social habit and laziness - period !

I despair.

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This doesn't really add anything that hasn't been addressed in other answers - even the two links were already provided in the posts above. You may want to delete this answer. –  Hannele Oct 21 '13 at 17:37
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