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I have seen the use of "no?" instead of "isn't it?" in the following text:

Finally she stepped back, wearing a smug smile. “Better, no?” I examined myself in the mirror. My hair shone.

(From Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone)

Is it correct to use that formula? When can it be used instead of the auxiliary verb and the pronoun, as usual?

  • I'm having trouble gathering info from Google Books/NGrams because of the inability there to specify '?' or sentence endings and get results. I hear '..., no?' all the time but it always sounds like an affectation/foreignism/unnatural to me, but maybe that's just me. – Mitch Aug 8 at 15:36
  • In fact, in Spanish we use precisely that same structure: "better, isn't it?" would be "mejor, ¿no?". I was a little surprised to see it written that way in English because of that... – Quaerendo Aug 8 at 16:38
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The sentence final '..., no?' is a reasonable replacement for "right?" or the ESL bane of the complicated negative question tag "aren't you?", "isn't he", "isn't that so" AS in:

"You're going shopping now, aren't you?" ->

"You're going shopping now, no?"

But the meaning isn't identical. For "aren't you", there's some doubt about the future action. with "no?", it's more of a presumption with an arched eyebrow.

You can't use it with a negative statement. Question tags in English are the opposite polarity of the statement preceding, and 'no?' is the negative tag. Strangely, '..., yes?' can be used in English instead of 'no?' but is much less common.

The OED's entry on 'no, adv2 and int' gives:

2 Used interrogatively. c. colloquial. As a question-tag at the end of a sentence: ‘is that not so?’, ‘am I not correct?’, etc.

Sometimes in representations of the speech of those for whom English is not a first language, corresponding to French n'est-ce pas?, Spanish no?, etc.

1932 L. Golding Magnolia St. i. v. 94 ... A public school they call it, no?

1975 H. McCutcheon Instrument of Vengeance vii. 123 ...'You just love them and leave them, no?'

2000 M. Ondaatje Anil's Ghost 26 ... This is a hospital, no?

Similarly for "..., yes?":

[6. colloquial. As a question-tag at the end of a sentence, inviting agreement, approval, or confirmation: ‘isn't that so?’, ‘am I not correct?’, etc.

Often in representations of the speech of those for whom English is not a first language.

1924 ‘W. Fabian’ Sailors' Wives v. 74 ... Not so dim; yes? 1942 E. Ferber Saratoga Trunk (new ed.) vi. 105 I speak like a true vacher, yes?

1996 E. L. Harry Society of Mind xv. 366 As the heavy blast door closed on the group ahead, a woman with a French accent said, ‘This is built very much for security, yes?’

2015 A. Mulligan Liquidator 81 If you don't want people looking at your files, you encrypt them—yes?

Both entries for yes and no hint at their foreign sound, but from the examples it is not necessarily a foreignism.

  • You don't have do be an ESL learner to find the trailing no confusing, isn't it? In practice, people usually reply incorrectly, no? Because all forms of negatives, especially double negatives, aren't very not confusing to not no one. – Chris Aug 8 at 17:40
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I’ve been told (but have found no corroborating documentation) that this is an example of “linguistic assimilation”, where an expression from a language other than English is used as though it were a native construction. In this case, I was told that the original expression was from Spanish, “¿No es verdad?”, meaning “Isn’t it true?”. From my daily dealings with people fluent in Spanish, even though I don’t speak the language myself, I do recognize the short form, “..., ¿No?” being used.

I can’t say whether this is a common usage, or from the same source, in areas where Spanish has not been in a position to influence local idiom in English.

  • I think it's more likely to be a parallel structure, but really there's no way to tell. I use it quite a bit and have had very little exposure to Spanish – user339660 Aug 9 at 4:27
  • @Minty - that's why I cast my answer to indicate that it was essentially anecdotal in nature. There are other languages that have similar constructs, such as the use of ..., n'est-ce pas? in French, and I recall reading about languages where this structure is actually the "natural" structure for asking a question. – Jeff Zeitlin Aug 9 at 11:12

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