When is it okay to use 'not' when posing a question? I believe that the person asking would include the 'not 'when he believes the implied to be true. For example: "Are you going to the store? "Are you not going to the store?"

Then the question of how to properly answer it. "Yes, I am going to the store" "No, I am going to the store."

and if they arent going... "No, I am not." "Yes, I am not."

I wonder if this is a French rule and therefore confusing to English speakers; where 'Si' is used instead of 'Oui'.

Anyways, your thoughts?

  • For me, the problem with using "Are you not" in a sentence is it automatically gets converted into "Aren't you". So if the answer to "Aren't you going to the store?" is "Yes", I actually didn't get an answer to the question.
    – jxh
    Aug 22 '14 at 20:10
  • It's okay when the question can be unambiguously understood and answered without extra effort on either party to discern whether the response is appropriate and unambiguously answers the question. Read: Almost never, and trying to find an answer herein where both the question and the possible responses are unambiguous would lend credence to this comment. This original question is just one step away from "Do you mind ..." which tends to require the opposite response than would otherwise apply.
    – SrJoven
    Sep 5 '14 at 16:55

The lack of a different "yes" makes negative questions indeed a tricky thing in English. In French, but also in German (doch) and surealy other languages, there is a possibility to give a positive answer to a negative question. In English, it often leads to confusion.

One way to deal with it was what my Indian colleague did, very consequently: she would answer yes or no depending on the truth of the statement in the question:

Don't you like this? Yes (you are right), I don't like this.
Didn't you do that? No (you are wrong), I did that.

It worked quite nicely, but I suspect that an IT-background and possibly a certain nerdy love of logic helped in that. Most speakers do not appreciate pure reason applied to language (as is illustrated by people not being amused when I answer "yes" when they ask if I would like tea or coffee.)

I think you are right in assuming that you would normally ask a negative question when you assume the answer to be likewise negative. So if you assume someone did not do something, you can ask you didn't do that, did you?.
A reasonable answer could avoid yes or no: "Indeed, I did not."

If your assumption is wrong, however, you pose a bit of a challenge for the answerer: they'll have to go for something like "you are mistaken. I did do that" if they want to avoid any possible confusion. There are several options, but a simple yes or no are indeed ruled out.

I think it is safe to say that negative questions are almost by definition not yes/no questions, but there are plenty of confusion-avoiding ways to answer when you want to deny the (negative) assumption. To confirm the assumption, either yes or no will do:

Didn't you do your homework? No, I didn't / Yes, I didn't

If the assumption is wrong:

Didn't you do your homework?
Yes! I did do it!
Actually, I did do it.
You are mistaken. I did do my homework.

  • Multiple anonymous downvoters even. I wonder where the ridiculous idea comes from that this kind of downvoting is in any way productive. My answer is so bad you want it removed? Just vote to delete it then.
    – oerkelens
    Aug 23 '14 at 6:53
  • Well the problem is "Didn't you do your homework" can get any answer given to "Did you do your homework" and they do not include "Yes, I didn't!" -- It can get 'No', and it can in fact get 'Yes' if the answer is given in a challenging tone of voice. Negated questions are in fact not yes/no questions. They are still yes/no, but they are not questions, they are challenges. Aug 26 '14 at 1:32
  • "They do not include" is a very bold statement after I clearly explained how and why such an answer certainly is included in the possible answers. That some speakers do not encounter that possibility in their everyday life does not mean it does not exist. At least one downvote is explained, be it on the irrational grounds that if one speaker doesn't know a usage, the usage can not exist.
    – oerkelens
    Aug 26 '14 at 6:18
  • @JonJayObermark — And it seems my colleague and I are not the only two people in the world that can accept "no, I didn't" as an answer. As to negated questions not being yes/no question,s, you are parroting my answer — if you agree, why are you simply repeating me and seemingly criticizing my answer?
    – oerkelens
    Aug 26 '14 at 6:43
  • The answer I object to is "Yes, I didn't". As the answers allowed do include both 'No' and a plain 'Yes', as long as your tone fits, I disagree with your assertion something beyond that is demanded. I am not parroting your answer, as I totally disagree with most of it. You claimed to want to know why people anonymously downvoted you -- maybe it is because you do not deal well with disagreement, and you do not read complaints well. Aug 26 '14 at 19:19

When is it okay to use 'not' when posing a question?

As I understand it, people add “not” to questions in this way for one of two reasons:

  1. The asker believed she knew the answer but now is unsure
  2. The asker knows the answer and is proving a point

In the first example, imagine a parent who instructed his child to finish her homework before playing video games. When arriving home, he finds his daughter playing some game and assumes that she finished her homework. Later, finding out that she did not do so, he might ask “Did you not finish your homework?” (perhaps an interrobang would be more suitable).

The second example seems far more common, since it occurs when most anyone feels the need to disguise their argument as a set of claims to be refuted by the answer. E.g., lawyers often seem to use such a construction because each answer that does not refute the claim appears to reinforce the asker's argument.

[How do you properly answer?]

As mentioned by @oerkelens and suspected by the OP, part of the confusion when answering these formulations is that English does not have a separation between affirmation and negation with “yes” (where the French and some other languages do).

However, there exists a very simple way to answer these questions unambiguously. Avoid using “yes” and “no”. Instead, only answer with the clarifying clause.

E.g., someones asks, “Are you not going to the parade?” The unambiguous affirmative would be “I am going to the parade,” whereas the unambiguous negative would be “I am not going to the parade.”

If you felt compelled to use “yes“ or “no“, you might choose which to say depending on the asker's expected reply. That is, if the answer is inline with what the asker expected, the answer would be “yes,” else “no.”


Expecting Marry to have gone to the store, Shelby asked, “Did you not go to the store?” Marry replied, “Yes, I went to the store.”

Unfortunately, with no emphasis or context around such formulations, it might be difficult to discern the asker's expected answer. As a result, I would recommend the simpler and unambiguous answer when possible.

  • When you say choose which to say depending on the asker's expected reply, you mean that if Shelby did not expect Marry to have gone to the store, the answer could well be "yes, I did not go to the store"?
    – oerkelens
    Aug 26 '14 at 6:29
  • @oerkelens, if Marry had not gone to the store, and that's what Shelby expected, then Marry's answer would be, “Yes, I did not go to the store.” Of course, this clumsiness is why I recommended the unambiguous formulations rather than ever specifying “yes” or “no.”
    – HalosGhost
    Aug 26 '14 at 6:37
  • Thank you for confirming the ridicule of Jon Jay Obermarks comment to my question :) I agree that this kind of answer will probably only be acceptable in specific company or situations, but that is no reason to rule it out.
    – oerkelens
    Aug 26 '14 at 6:40
  • Well, I don't want to get in a fight with other users about this. That formulation, though technically valid (as far as I know), is very rare; I may have ever used it a handful of times my entire life. The unambiguous formulations are clearly preferable.
    – HalosGhost
    Aug 26 '14 at 6:44
  • @HalosGhost. Do you agree with me that this kind of answer is actually an unbidden apology, and not really an answer to the question. With no question pending, one can say, for instance "Yes, I didn't finish the chapter. So sue me!" The formation itself is not an answer, but an apology. Aug 27 '14 at 14:28

Just a thought: Generally, we use negative questions to show surprise,sarcasm, express complaint & in exclamations,polite requests, invitations, offers- when we expect the listener to agree with us.

Though not a rule, we should use a negative for emphasis, when we believe the implied to be true.


Negation clearly does not change the expected answer unless it is emphasized awkwardly. 'Are you coming?' 'Yes, I am coming.' 'Aren't you coming?' 'Yes, I am coming.' Only 'Are you not coming?' gets 'No, I am coming!'

Without emphasis, the negation indicates which answer would more trouble the questioner, and does nothing else.

If the question is negated, a negative response would trouble, challenge, or disorient the questioner or at least change their expectations. Otherwise the question is more neutral in tone. Of course, people in conflicts often use this hint backward, implying they would be troubled by the answer they want.

If you want the question to expect the opposite answer, you need to put the negation farther from the main verb. Thus the popularity of phrases like "Isn't it true" or "Do you know" that can introduce a 'that', an 'if' or a 'whether' clause that can include meaningful negation.

  • Can you explain how you do not contradict yourself when you start off with negation [...] does not change the expected answer, to go on with if the question is negated, a negative response would [...] change their expectations? If expectations are changed, they pre-existed. If a teacher asks "did you did you homework?" this could be seen as neutral, but "didn't you do your homework?" does carry a (negative) expectation. The teacher expects the homework not to be done.
    – oerkelens
    Aug 26 '14 at 6:27
  • The grammatical change does not reflect a difference in the answer your interlocutor expects to hear from you. Your response, if negative, is likely to change their expectations about other aspects of the world. They have put forward a clearer indication of their expectations, inviting it to be challenged. But they expect you to answer the same question as if they had not negated it. Aug 27 '14 at 14:18
  • I should have said above, the meaning of any answer, in the sense of grammars of other languages that have questions expecting the negative. It conveys what answer is expected, and thus 'changes' that from neutrality. Aug 27 '14 at 19:22

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