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Let's say we know a boy called Jonny and he goes bowling twice a week. My daughter has asked me which of the following questions are correct.

  1. Does Jonny go bowling?
  2. Doesn't Jonny go bowling?

We are wondering, why is it that the answer to both questions is "yes", although the second question starts with a negative word?

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The second one is far more specific. It has the premise that the questioner assumed Jonny would go bowling, but there is some indication that he doesn't! The first is more neutral. – Mr Lister Jan 2 '13 at 19:33
Please edit the question to show the research effort that went into it: for example sources consulted and what was inadequate about what you found. – MετάEd Jan 2 '13 at 19:40
I strongly suspect the research that went into it was to ask a couple of friends, and then post to this site. That doesn't seem unreasonable for this kind of question. – Beska Jan 2 '13 at 23:57

Questions, unlike statements, don't assert anything, so they can't be either true or false. Since the normal use for negation is to state that something is false, that means negation is not really needed in normal questions.

And that means that negation is available for other purposes in questions.
Language rarely wastes resources.

Negative Yes/No questions are used, like negative tag questions, to indicate the speaker's belief, or guess (the technical pragmatic term is invited inference), that the answer to the question is Yes. Affirmative Y/N questions have no such invited inference.

So, in this case, as Barrie has pointed out, the negative question indicates the speaker's belief that Jonny did in fact go bowling, and thus the question is asked as a matter of confirmation, rather than simple ignorance.

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Thus, the answer "Yes" can be seen as affirmatively confirming that the asker's implicitly-expressed belief is true. It gets a bit more tricky to decide whether to start your reply with "yes" or "no" in response to something more logically convoluted, such as "Don't you think that's not the best way for Johnny to spend his time?" – FumbleFingers Jan 2 '13 at 21:15
Overnegation is not always unproblematic. – John Lawler Jan 2 '13 at 23:31
You don't say! :) – FumbleFingers Jan 3 '13 at 1:03

If you knew that Jonny went bowling, you wouldn’t ask the first question. If you thought he probably did, but were seeking confirmation, you’d ask the second.

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I think the OP isn't as interested in the usage as much as why the response to both is yes when one is negated. – Jeremy Jan 2 '13 at 19:35
The response to the first could be 'No', but, as I said, in those circumstances, given that 'we know . . . he goes bowling twice a week', the question wouldn't be asked. – Barrie England Jan 2 '13 at 19:44

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