4

I suppose we can say that the meaning of

I asked him if he likes beer

is essentially identical to

I asked him: "Do you like beer?".

But what if I say:

I asked him if he didn't like beer

Is this question even grammatical and does it make sense at all? If yes then what direct question would it entail? Is it

I asked him: "Don't you like beer?"

Or

I asked him: "You don't like beer, do you?"

1

The basic form of the direct question would be

"Don't you like beer?"

and, while

"You don't like beer, do you?"

is semantically identical, we use it in a different context. The first question is one of surprise (if she seems not to) or affirmation (if you believe she does). The second question is looking for confirmation of your belief that the other person doesn't like beer, either personally or because you feel beer is just awful and all right-thinking people avoid it.

Pace @MaddieS. you should never answer a negative question with a one-word answer. It's completely ambiguous whether that means you're negating the question or affirming it. You'll spend the next minute or two of the conversation in needless loop trying to figure out what was intended, which can be offputting when someone expects their logic or phrasing should have been straightforward. Instead, just answer the whole thing: "No, I don't", or "Yes, I don't like beer at all".

  • I believe it can be confusing when people answer a negative question with a one-word answer, particularly if the person answering does not fully consider the answer they intend to give based on its meaning, but this does not necessitate that it never be done in my opinion. Linguistically proficient individuals could carry on a conversation just fine following such an exchange. – Maddie S. Apr 12 '17 at 4:37
1

Negation in yes/no questions makes no difference to their essential meaning. The answer to a yes/no question and the answer to it's negated version will be the same:

  • Do you like beer? No, I don't
  • Don't you like beer? No, I don't

The main difference between a normal question and a negated one is that the negation tends to imply a previous bias on the part of the speaker towards an affirmative answer. You will notice that the question "Don't you like beer" seems to imply that the speaker thought that they did like beer, and is surprised that they don't.

This implied bias is often cancelled if the question seems to be prompted by some kind of contextual evidence. Usually, in these kinds of question the word not is not attached to the auxiliary:

  • Mary doesn't drink beer.
  • Do you not drink beer either?

In the question above, the speaker does not seem to imply that they had a strong impression that the other person did drink beer. Here, the bias - if there is any - seems to be that the speaker suspects that the other person may not drink beer. Notice that if we stick the negative onto the auxiliary the bias will be reintroduced:

  • Mary doesn't drink beer.
  • Don't you drink beer either?

We can easily embed both of these types of negative question in reported speech. However, without any context such questions will seem to lose their implied bias. One of the reasons for this is that in reported speech it doesn't make much difference whether we use the word not or a negative contraction. So in the sentence -

  • I asked him if he didn't like beer.

We don't necessarily get a strong sense of affirmative bias even though the the negation is attached to the auxiliary. So the original question could easily be either of the following:

  • Do you not like beer?
  • Don't you like beer?

The fist of these may or may not imply any bias, depending of the context.

-1

This question is entirely grammatically correct, although not grammatically simplistic.

I believe the direct question from

I asked him if he didn't like beer.

would be simply

I asked him: "Do you not like beer?"

To explain this question's meaning outside its implications of a yes or no answer I will cover what the meanings of each of the possible answers convey.

He answered: "Yes."

Meaning, he answered, "yes, I do not like beer." Simply, he has told you he does not like beer (drinking it, the taste of it, et cetera).

He answered: "No"

In this situation, considering the question carefully, we see that he has told you, "no, I do like beer." In reality, he supplies this answer through a double-negative, in which the answer "no" denotes that he does not not like beer.

  • Outside of a philosophy or grammar class, people don't consider questions carefully and one-word answers to negative questions are completely ambiguous. They should just be answered with a full sentence. – lly Apr 12 '17 at 4:28
  • Conversing with intellectual and linguistically proficient individuals solves this problem. If that is not the case, then yes, I agree that you need to reword the question or answer with a complete sentence to ensure the answer is conveyed clearly. – Maddie S. Apr 12 '17 at 4:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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