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I want to know how to answer negative questions. For example, take the following example:

Q: "Aren't you supposed to be there at 7? You don't have time."

A: "No, I can make it on time."

Someone told me that my response above is wrong, and that I should answer with:

A: "Yes, (I am.) I can make it on time."

or

A: "No, I'm not supposed to be there at 7."

Can you explain for me which one sounds normal to native English speakers?

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  • 1
    As a watcher of Asian dramas, I have to double-take when someone responds to a question by shaking their head "no" and the subtitles say "yes." Invariably, they have been asked a negative question and are disagreeing with that question.
    – rajah9
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 15:41
  • Yes; but I cannot make it....
    – Ram Pillai
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 12:53

3 Answers 3

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Japanese and English treat negative questions differently.

If a question is posed in the form "Aren't you going?" (行きませんか?)

In Japanese you can say はい、行きません。("Yes, I'm not going.)

But in English it's idiomatic to say "No, I'm not going."

This is often confusing to Westerners who are learning Japanese if a Japanese person answers はい (hai, or yes) to a negative question. Also, hai is often more of an acknowledgement of the other person's statement than a strict indicator of polarity.

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  • Isn’t it also confusing for Japanese people who are learning English? Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 2:53
  • 2
    It was confusing for an English person learning English! :) Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 2:57
  • 1
    Chinese is also like Japanese in this regard. And I'm pretty sure most European languages are like English. As a child I remember intuitively feeling it should be the "Asian" way, and having to explicitly learn the "European" way.
    – jkej
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 8:55
  • In East Asian languages, yes/no indicates agreement or disagreement with the question statement. However, in English, yes/no indicates agreement or disagreement with the topic: it is either "yes, I have time" or "no, I don't have time", even if the question was "Do you not have time now?"
    – Toby Mak
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 9:13
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Speaking literally, there is only a single question:

  • "Aren't you supposed to be there at 7?"

Also speaking literally, there is a single answering statement (although several different such statements are possible):

  1. "Yes, I am supposed to be there at 7." 
  2. "No, I'm not supposed to be there at 7."

But in context, the second statement after the question can be taken as an implied, conditional question:

  • Aren't you supposed to be there at 7? [If you are, I think] you don't have time [, do you?]

As such, the person answering could choose to provide a two-part answer:

  1. "Yes, I am supposed to be there at 7, and I think I'll make it."
  2. "Yes, I am supposed to be there at 7, but I think you're right that I won't make it."
  3. "No, I'm not supposed to be there at 7, so it doesn't matter if there isn't time to get there."
  4. "No, I'm not supposed to be there at 7, but I think I could make it anyway even if I were supposed to be there."

The following short answer could be seen as ambiguous:

  • "No, I can make it on time."

In theory, it could be interpreted as a short version of the two-part answer expressed in 4: "No, I'm not supposed to be there at 7, but I could make it anyway even if I were supposed to be there."

However, idiomatically, it's not normally interpreted in such a literal sense. Instead, it's mostly understood that what is actually being answered is the implied, conditional question—and that the affirmative response to the actual first question is simply assumed.

In other words, it's meaning is commonly understood to be that of the two-part answer expressed in 1: "Yes, I am supposed to be there at 7, and [no, I don't think I don't have time, but] I think I'll make it."


However, there are no strict rules here. It depends on how the question has been interpreted as well as how the answer has been interpreted. Further, what sounds natural to one person in terms of an exchange might not sound as natural to another person. People differ between both their level of formality and their level of literalism.


To make this even clearer, consider this extreme example exchange:

  • "Aren't you supposed to be there at 7? You don't have have time."
  1. "Yes."
  2. "No."

Rather than using any of the previously mentioned ways of answering, this simply provides a single-word answer.

This makes it even more ambiguous what is being answered, or, therefore, what the answer is.

The more something is not explicitly asked or answered, the greater the chance there is of it being confusing or misunderstood.

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  • Thank you for replying! After answering "No", is it unnatural to continue in a positive sentence such as " No, I am going to (make it on time)."? I reply to negative questions like this all the time, but nobody corrected me before. Was I wrong? Thanks! Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:38
  • It's not unnatural. It's potentially ambiguous, but such responses are frequent, especially in informal dialogue. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:53
  • Thank you so much!! Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 17:28
  • Saying "that's right" rather than "yes" seems to me to make it less ambiguous (explicitly agreeing with the statement included in the question). Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 1:22
  • @WillCrawford It's certainly less ambiguous, but it's still ambiguous. It's still not entirely clear what is being affirmed: that you are supposed to be there at 7, that there isn't time, or both. Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 1:30
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Two things are implied. The first ("Aren't you supposed ... ?") is a probably a rhetorical question rather than one that demands an answer. There is then an assertion "You don't have time." to which you correctly reply "No, I can make it on time." "No" negates the assertion.

If you choose to answer the first question by saying Yes, you make it difficult to deny the assertion by saying No. You have to say something like "Yes, but I can make it on time".

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