I’m an English teacher in Japan. Recently I ran into quite a conundrum, which I’m sure many others have struggled with. I was talking to one of my students in the presence of my boss and something my student said gave me the impression he hadn’t seen a particular movie. I then asked him, “So you haven’t seen the movie?” He responded, “No, I haven’t.” At this, I corrected him, saying he should say, “Yes, I haven’t.” My boss took issue with and said this is the number one thing that Japanese students learning English apparently trip up on, and traditionally they would be upset if I teach this kind of thing, because what they learned in school is that they should say, “No, I haven’t” in all cases. He has been riding me to find the answer for myself as to whether this is true or not, and while I’ve looked around online and found opinions, I can’t find anything “official”. And what bothers me is responding to a question such as “Have you not seen it” with “No, I haven’t” seems illogical to me, because then it sounds like it would be a double-negative; I’m asking if he has NOT seen the movie, so shouldn’t his answer be “YES, I haven’t seen it?” By saying “no“, to me it sounds like he would be saying, “No, I haven’t not seen it”, which would mean he has.

Also, the other night, my boss posed the example question on the board for me, “Do you not like it?”. Again, I would naturally think it should be, “Yes, I don’t” or “No, I do”, because I’d be affirming that question one way or the other.

He also showed me a place in a textbook we use with a question like “Don’t you like it” and the answer was “No, I don’t” or “Yes, I do”. This makes sense to me because the question is essentially saying, “I think you like it, right”, but I’d using a negative. Although when I think about it, why does this seem normal to me but it seems strange to me to say “Yes, I do” or “No, I don’t” to something like “Do you NOT like it”.

This thread seems to suggest I’m right: Proper yes/no answer to a question posed in negative form My mom, who is really good with Grammar, also agreed with the responses in that thread. But I feel like I need something more official and concrete.

So could anyone tell me for sure what the right way is and if possible give me an official source, like a dictionary of sorts or something? Thanks a lot.

  • I don't think that thread agrees with you; all the answers there and in the linked question show "Yes, I do" and "No, I don't", but never a "Yes, I don't" or a "No, I do." – Hellion Feb 20 '18 at 15:57
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    Have a look at the question "Is it normal to use “yes” begin a negative answer?", where the comments and at least one answer deal with the difference between Japanese and English approaches to dealing with questions involving negatives. – Lawrence Feb 20 '18 at 16:11
  • The problem lies with people asking negative questions. It is illogical to ask a negative question. That's why there is am ambiguity in answering it. Instead of asking 'Is he not coming tonight ?' (it's a daft question - to ask if someone is going to 'not' do something) the questioner should be more logical and simply ask ' Is he coming tonight ?' The trick is to just say 'Yes' and wait for the confused questioner to re-state the question more sensibly. – Nigel J Feb 20 '18 at 16:49
  • Yes or no seem to produce cognitive dissonance in this context but I think it can be easily avoided. I use either right or correct. For example "That's right, I didn't." I can't recall anybody ever having a problem grasping that. – Al Maki Feb 20 '18 at 17:04

An answer negating a positive question is couched as a negative. An answer affirming a negative question in English is also couched as a negative. The answer depends not upon the form of the question, but the answerer's understanding of what is true.

It's my understanding that Beth went to the theater Thursday night.

Didn't Beth go to the theater on Wednesday night?

No, she didn't. She went on Thursday.

Did Beth go to the theater Wednesday night?

No, she didn't. She went on Thursday.

Didn't Beth go to the theater Thursday night?

Yes, she did.

Did Beth go to the theater Thursday night?

Yes, she did.

It doesn't matter whether a negative or positive question is asked about when Beth went to the theater; the only thing that matters is what I understand to be true: she went on Thursday night.

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  • I've edited-and-de-edited so that I could reverse my initial downvote. Although the answer at the duplicate is repeated here, you do give a required reference which that does not (rules were laxer in those days). – Edwin Ashworth Feb 20 '18 at 17:31
  • And of course, colloquially, a positive answer negating a negative answer can also be couched as a negative if the negating is seen as unexpected: “Didn’t Beth go to the theatre Wednesday night?” — “No, she did; she just didn’t watch the same film I did.” – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 20 '18 at 23:01
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Then there's the even more colloquial answer to a negative question: "Yeah, no...", but second language learners are best spared such complexities. – KarlG Feb 20 '18 at 23:09

It's important to remember that English answers negative questions differently than Japanese:

There is a well known difference between languages that have a truth-based answering system, also called an agreement/disagreement system, as in Chinese and Japanese, and languages that have a polarity-based system, as in English and French. The received view is that, in the truth-based system, a negative question is answered ‘yes’ to confirm the negation, while in the polarity-based system a negative question is answered ‘no’ to confirm the negation. When it comes to English, this is a simplification, as English exhibits properties of both systems, depending on the syntax of the negation. This suggests that the parameter has to do with differences in the syntax of negation, rather than, for example, differences in the meaning of answering particles.
The syntax of answers to negative yes/no-questions in English (alt link: download PDF)

In this case, the answer to "you haven’t seen the movie?" should be "no, I haven’t" or "yes, I have".

This is confirmed by another paper:

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 nonnegative questions, under K&R’s theory.

(16) Q:Isn’t he coming?

isn’t+C [TP he [VP coming ]]

a. Yes. (‘He is coming.’)
b. No. (‘He is not coming’.)

On the syntax of yes and no in English (alt link: download PDF)

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