Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

If someone asks

Would you prefer to go shopping or go out to eat?

and receives the response

Yes

the response is ambiguous.

You cannot deduce which choice the responder has chosen because they haven't responded with one of the options.

Is there a rule that dictates which choice to assume the responder has made?

share|improve this question
5  
I do this all the time, when my wife asks me a Y/N question and then turns it into multiple choice just as I'm about to answer: "Do you want to go out to eat tonight...or do you want to heat up leftovers?" My yes is a logical reply since I do want to do one or the other. Plus it drives her crazy. –  JeffSahol Dec 14 '11 at 18:41
3  
Related How to unambiguously ask a question with “OR” –  FumbleFingers Dec 14 '11 at 19:08
1  
Related: Does “either A or B ” preclude “both A and B”? - includes answers and comments discussing this issue, such as Which is why computer geeks and propositional calculus nerds will, when asked "do you want to go to lunch now or later?", answer "yes". (Illustrating that the "either" part is implied by context as often as it's cancelled by context.) –  aedia λ Dec 14 '11 at 19:09
2  
Often, a "yes" answer to an "or" question is a humorous way to express "both!" But a "yes, that's correct" answer to a "which is it, A or B?" question shows that the answerer utterly failed to comprehend the question. –  JPmiaou Dec 14 '11 at 19:47
    
Perhaps next time you can change the question to use 'either, or' for an exclusive 'or' condition. I would like to see them answer that with a strait 'yes' –  Jon Dec 15 '11 at 7:59

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The circumstances might show which option 'yes' was answering, but otherwise you're right, it is ambiguous. In practice, it's most unlikely that any conversation would proceed along those exact lines.

share|improve this answer
1  
'In practice, it's most unlikely that any conversation would proceed along those exact lines.' Unfortunately, you are wrong. I sent an email this morning that consisted of two, simple sentences, and my question was as simple as the example that I was given. The exact response was 'Yes. That is correct.' This wasn't the first time that I have heard this response to such a question, and this mornings incident simply made me curious. –  RLH Dec 14 '11 at 18:36
1  
@RLH: I did say unlikely rather than impossible and I was thinking of a spoken conversation. All I can say is that it's a strange response and one which requires elucidation. –  Barrie England Dec 14 '11 at 18:41
    
Ah, sorry. My response was a bit stronger than I intended. You are correct that this is strange an not common. It's just fresh in my mind at the moment. I apologize if my tone was a tad offensive. –  RLH Dec 14 '11 at 18:55
    
@RLH: No, not at all. –  Barrie England Dec 14 '11 at 19:22
    
Actually, it is kind of a trendy joke response right now. It expresses enthusiasm. "Do you want ice cream or cake?" "Yes." It could also result from the listener not listening closely. –  Ryan Dec 14 '11 at 21:19

"Yes" is often jokingly used to say "both", with the ambiguity morphing into inclusivity.

share|improve this answer

People sometimes answer "yes" to an either/or question as a joke.

The structure of the question is admittedly ambiguous. Some "A or B" questions do legitimately call for a yes or no answer. For example, I recently applied for insurance and the form had a question, "Have you ever been treated or diagnosed for diabetes, AIDS, or Hepatitis?" with boxes for "yes" or "no". In context, this was not an either/or question, like, "Which have you been treated for, diabetes or AIDS?", or "Were you treated for diabetes, or only diagnosed?" It was asking if any of the items on the list applied.

So the exact same question structure could call for different answers depending on the context:

"Do you have diabetes or hepatitis?" probably calls for a yes or a no.

"Do you want vanilla or chocolate?" probably calls for you to select one or the other.

In some cases a person might honestly misunderstand which is being asked. Like going back to the insurance form example, if the insurance company asks "Do you have type I or type II diabetes?", someone might honestly answer "yes", when the insurance company already knows he has one or the other and is trying to find out which one.

And by the way, giving a list of non-exhaustive choices in an "either/or" question and demanding the other person pick one is a classic propaganda technique. I read a gag survey once with the question: "In the past (and probably still in the present) there was a sinister conspiracy between the Scotts and the French to destroy England. Do you believe that, (a) The Scotts are more deceitful and underhanded than the French? (b) The French are more deceitful and underhanded than the Scotts? Or (c) There is nothing to choose between the two?" There are plenty of real "public opinion polls" that are only slightly less blatant.

share|improve this answer

Sometimes the answer "yes" is meant to imply that they want both A and B, or they they want one and do not care which. This follows logically if you think of the question this way:

Do you want (A or B)?

The replyer wants (A or B) so the answer "Yes" is correct, if not exactly useful.

Her: Do you want tea or coffee?

Him: Yes

Her: gives him tea (or, if she feels he's being a smart-alec, gives him coffee with a teabag in it (based on a true story))

Note that in most cases a "No" answer is unambiguously rejecting both choices.

share|improve this answer
    
Well, "No" can in many cases also mean rejecting only a single choice but not the other. –  Pacerier Sep 24 at 2:09
    
@Pacerier I am struggling to imagine a scenario where a person is asked "Do you want tea or coffee" (or any A or B) and they answer "No" meaning "No, I want coffee" (and expect to be understood) –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 24 at 14:05
    
It entirely depends on the context. And I was talking about written English, where punctuations exist in explicit forms. E.g. "Do you want (A or B)"? No. –  Pacerier Sep 24 at 14:28
    
@Pacerier I still don't see how "No" can be interpreted as rejecting just one choice. In English, "or" is either exclusive or inclusive, but in either case, if one choice is wanted, then the answer has to be "yes". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 25 at 1:31

In your example, it would be quite odd for someone to answer yes.

Compare to the following:

"Would you like to join me for dinner sometime, or go see a movie?"

"Yes, I'd love to."

Here, the second speaker isn't choosing between two options, but answering the implied question: "Would you like to go out?"

share|improve this answer

protected by RegDwigнt Sep 9 '12 at 20:34

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.