I was reading a fantasy novel and I came across this piece of dialogue:

Don’t you know what a Conquest Knight is?

And the main character replied by nodding his head.

But this confused me because the question could be asking if he does know, to which he nods his head, or it could be asking if he does not know, to which he nods his head.

Well from reading the story I can tell you that at this point in time the character does not know. And because he nods his head the question must be asking if he does not know.

But, left as is, it could be interpreted one of two ways:

"Do you not know what a conquest knight is?"

"Do you know what a conquest knight is?"

Basically, I am asking if the contraction don't is used improperly in the sentence or if the contraction itself has always been that ambiguous.

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    The contraction is perfectly properly used here, and it is not ambiguous at all to me. The response is not proper, however: nodding quite unambiguously means “Yes, I do not what a conquest knight is” to me. Only someone who wanted to be deliberately, disingenuously misleading or annoying (aka ‘dads’) would ever give a positive reply to agree with a negative question in English. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 16 '17 at 16:50
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    Giving a yes/no response to a negative question is always ambiguous, absent some other clues. – Hot Licks Apr 16 '17 at 18:21
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    It should be noted that the above form is almost always used in a rhetorical sense (as is the case for most equivalent negative forms) -- the speaker is reminding the listener of a fact that they both should be aware of. The response, then, is not expected to be a simple acknowledgement of the fact, but rather some indication as to whether the listener considers this fact to be relevant to the discussion. A nod yes or no cannot be interpreted outside of the more complete context of the discussion. – Hot Licks Apr 16 '17 at 18:47

Due to the position of not (n't) in the sentence, the answers to the question will be the same as the non-negated version of the question:

Do you know what a conquest knight is?

So "yes" would mean "yes, I know" and "no" would mean "no, I don't know".

This conclusion is supported by several academic sources I have found. For example:

In negative questions with outer negation (i.e. with n’t instead of not) the negation is “interpreted high”, that is outside the TP. I presume this means that the copy of the negation within TP is [uNeg] while the copy outside is [iNeg]. Therefore the answers work as they do in the case of non-negative questions, under K&R’s theory.
On the syntax of yes and no in English

I can't say I know why the line is written how it is (especially with no direct quote and little context). Was he lying? Is the line just written poorly? Was the question supposed to be rhetorical and the nodding a sign of an attentive listener?

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  • The equivalent un-contracted question is "Do you not know what ..." – Hot Licks Apr 16 '17 at 18:23
  • @HotLicks You misunderstood what I was trying to say, but it's my fault for writing it like that, so I reworded things (please tell me if it's better). However, note that the uncontracted form lacks the implicature that the contracted form has, and so they are subtly different when it comes to what yes and no mean (this is outside the scope of the question so the info's not included in my answer, but I could add it as well). – Laurel Apr 16 '17 at 18:37
  • @Laurel are you sure your name isn't Yanny ;) – SemperAmbroscus May 19 '18 at 16:57

Do you know what a Conquest Knight is?

This is a direct question. The person posing it probably has no idea whether the one being questioned has any knowledge of what a Conquest Knight is.

Don't you know what a Conquest Knight is?

This would imply that the person posing the question is 80 percent certain that the other person knows and is merely making sure. It is very much like asking

You do know what a Conquest Knight is, do you not?

The other party confirms this by nodding their head, as if to say "Yes, of course I do."

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  • Then that question must be phrased incorrectly because the character doesn't know and yet they nodded their head – SemperAmbroscus Apr 16 '17 at 17:27
  • The character lied. Where's the big deal? – Ricky Apr 16 '17 at 17:32
  • no he wasn't lying, he was saying that he didn't know – SemperAmbroscus Apr 16 '17 at 23:35
  • Whatever. .................... – Ricky Apr 17 '17 at 1:11

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