My wife and I communicate in English. She's Japanese, I'm Norwegian and we're both language enthusiasts; this makes for a lot of interesting language discussions.

This is something that surfaced today:

"Is this not so good anymore?", says my wife, holding up an old container of barbecue sauce which she thinks has gone bad. "Yes", I answer, meaning that the sauce has gone bad.

Disregarding that a) the question could probably have been formulated in a different way to make it less ambiguous and b) I could have been more verbose in my answer; would answering "Yes" or "No" to this question, in English, indicate that the sauce has, indeed, expired?

Both of our native languages handle these kinds of "negative questions" a bit differently and we can't seem to figure it out in English.

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    Single-word answers to negative questions are almost always ambiguous this way, so the safest strategy is to say something like Yes, it's not so good anymore, or No, it's not so good anymore, depending on how you like to do it. Then the interjection doesn't have to bear so much responsibility alone. Commented May 21, 2013 at 20:03

1 Answer 1


This is tricky! I can see why you would get confused.

First of all your wife's question should be reformulated as: "Has this sauce gone off?"(UK) or "Has this sauce gone bad?"(US) to which your answer: "Yes" would be unequivocal.

However, when a question is negative interrogative it is usual to reply positively to confirm the speaker's suspicion/doubt. For example: "Isn't he married?" the answer: "Yes, he is" confirms the fact the subject is married. "No, he isn't" means he is single. If however, the question was: "Is he not married?" The speaker is asking a completely different question, it is no longer a negative interrogative question but whether the man is single/unmarried, hence the short positive reply would be contradicting as in: Yes, he is (married)!.

So to go back to your wife's original "question" "Is this (sauce) not good?" OR "Isn't this (sauce) good?" The first question is not technically a "negative question" She was asking if the sauce was bad (not good) so your reply: "Yes (it is)" was actually saying the opposite!

http://www.englishspark.com/en/students/455-negative-questions http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv330.shtml

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    I think you're onto something here, but I would have interpreted “Is he not married?” “Yes” to mean that he is not married. Maybe. It's ambiguous. Commented May 21, 2013 at 20:46
  • "Is he not married?" The answer: "Yes" tells us the opposite, you are contradicting the speaker's suspicion. lets try another example: "Are you not happy?" if you reply: "Yes, I am!" you are telling the speaker he is wrong in making that assumption. That's how I interpret it... but I admit it is making my head spin a little!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 21, 2013 at 20:55
  • Thanks for this answer! I accepted it because I think you're onto something and the links explained even more. I would also agree with Bradd Szonye and interpreted a "Yes" to the question "Is he not married?" to mean "Yes, he is not married", and a "Yes" to the question "Are you not happy?" to mean "Yes, I am not happy."
    – leifericf
    Commented May 21, 2013 at 21:13
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    For “Are you not happy?” I would interpret the response more according to tone than yes or no. Commented May 21, 2013 at 21:15
  • This stuff is so confusing :p
    – leifericf
    Commented May 21, 2013 at 21:17

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