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I'd like to know if negative questions are used very often in English. For example, in Spanish, negative questions are used very often just to offer something, to ask about something you're not sure, to ask telling off somebody, etc.

For example:

Don't you want something to drink? (offer)

Isn't she going to come? (doubt)

Don't you have to go to school today? (ask and tell off)

Are negative questions used a lot or do you prefer positive questions? When are negative questions used more than positive ones?

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Whenever, as a kid, I asked something like "I can't do that, can I?" my father would always say "Not if you ask like that!" To this day, I try to avoid the construct. –  mikeY Dec 18 '11 at 5:13
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1 Answer

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Negative questions are used when the person who asks expects a positive answer, no matter what else might be implied. There is no question of frequency of use; when the speaker wants to express an amount of certainty for the answer, a negative question will be used.

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They also are used to express incredulity ("Didn't the bigger guy win?") or disapproval ("Aren't you going to help me?"). –  JeffSahol Dec 17 '11 at 16:25
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I agree with JeffSahol. Phrasing a question in the negative doesn't necessarily mean you expect a positive answer. Often you expect a negative answer, but you're indicating that this is either surprising or unwelcome before you even get the answer. –  FumbleFingers Dec 17 '11 at 16:58
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The syntax of questions is not at all the same as their pragmatics. Syntactic questions of all kinds are put to lots of non-interrogative uses. Intonation is a key feature of questions, and helps with their pragmatics, but written English doesn't really represent it well, so it's often very hard to tell. –  John Lawler Dec 17 '11 at 17:07
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Agree with FF and John...it's a construct that conveys expectation or anticipation, but the nature of that anticipation depends upon the context. e.g. "Won't you sit down?" = "Please sit down in that empty chair there" with a positive expectation whereas "Won't you ever shut up?" = "I'm sick of listening to you" with the negative expectation that "you" will keep prattling on. –  Jonathan Van Matre Dec 17 '11 at 19:08
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@FF -- this is what I meant above by the difference between the syntax of questions (which is what you call too simplistic) and their pragmatics (how they're used). If a sentence conforms to certain syntactic rules, it's a syntactic question. But that doesn't mean it's a request for information, or any other specific use. That's pragmatics, not syntax. Linguists find it necessary to distinguish them, precisely for this reason. –  John Lawler Dec 18 '11 at 1:46
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protected by RegDwigнt Mar 19 '12 at 15:33

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