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A friend and I had a question about a sentence that we encountered:

Didn't you want to pay for something that was too much?

My friend argues that sentence is fairly neutral clarifying in a neutral tone with the Boolean answer, whereas I think it's confirming their bias about the subject.

To explain, I said (as an example):

Do you want to eat dead animals?

Clarifying if they want that option.

Don't you want to eat dead animals?

Confirming that wouldn't they want to eat dead animals, as if they're double checking.

It's an example, and was not meant to trigger them, I could have used wanting to eat an apple, or something else (that feels less distasteful to others' subjective tastes) but that's what came to my mind at that particular moment.

We are both non-native speakers passionate about expressing ourselves in the least ambiguous way possible.

Could someone please shed some light on this who amongst is right, i.e. is the statement (without any context) is considered a question, or just a confirmation of something speaker already made their mind towards based on past experiences (as a context)?

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    Are you asking whether a question with a negative in it is still a question? Could you state your question, instead of your disagreement? We weren't there, so we don't understand. Mar 18, 2023 at 19:45
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    "Didn't you want to pay for something that was too much?" is a question that cannot be answered out of context. The use of the past tense implies preceding circumstances of some sort. Perhaps you didn't buy it; perhaps you did; perhaps you rented or stole it; perhaps you bought a cheaper thing. I think your question lacks the clarity you value so much.
    – Anton
    Mar 18, 2023 at 22:47
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    What does Didn’t you want to pay for something that was too much? even mean? Didn’t you want to overpay? How would this utterance occur naturally? Mar 18, 2023 at 22:58
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    Welcome to EL&U. Although I think I understand your question - just - I don't think it's very clear for most users (see Prof Lawler's comment above). I think you are arguing that in a negative yes/no question, the speaker is implying that they already think the answer to the question is "yes"? (Or thought so till just now). That view is widespread in the literature and such questions are indeed sometimes called "bias questions" in the linguistic literature. Could you edit your question to make it a bit clearer? Mar 19, 2023 at 0:15
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    The question must be a rhetorical tease, as no one wants to overpay. Even if you believe you get what you pay for and don't mind paying well, that's not "too much." Mar 19, 2023 at 0:39

2 Answers 2

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Your question is marred by not being idiomatic:

Didn't you want to pay for something that you thought was too much?

I suggest "Didn't you want to pay for it because you thought that the price was too high?"

is the statement (without any context) is considered a question, or just a confirmation of something speaker already made their mind up about?

The question is further marred because people who are passionate about English realise that, in English, the importance of context cannot be overstated.

The statement, with context, could be either

1.

A: He wanted £260 for the machine, so I left.

B: "Didn't you want to pay for it because you thought that the price was too high?"

This is a genuine question. B is guessing a reason for A's not buying. B has used context, and personal experience, to draw a tentative explanation - it is not "bias".

2.

A: He wanted £260 for the machine, so I left.

B: "You're an idiot. Even broken, those machines are worth £1,000. Didn't you want to pay for it because you thought that the price was too high?"

This is certainly emotive but it is still a guess at the motives for an action.

The second

B: Do/Don't you want to eat dead animals?

(I will ignore the fact that few people eat live animals.)

is, likewise, a guess. There may or may not be a subjective influence in B's deduction and, hence question, but it is nevertheless a deduction/a guess.

Interrogatives that look for, or guess at, the motive of a third party always have a subjective element in them.

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  • Okay, maybe bias is a wrong term. > B is guessing a reason for A's not buying. B has used context, and personal experience, to draw a tentative explanation The fact that it relies on personal experience is in fact the bias (IMHO) as if that listener has paid for things what was too much, instead of just asking that "Did you want to pay for something that was too much?" without drawing anything from previous experience is how I interpreted it.
    – abbe
    Mar 19, 2023 at 5:22
  • Such questions are known as "emotive": they are designed to provoke a response - but so is any other question. Grammatically, they are simply "interrogatives". The fact that it relies on personal experience is, in fact, bias - everything you say and do - other than actions of the autonomous nervous system - relies on experience.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 19, 2023 at 9:14
  • It is idiomatic just a tad unusual: [Was the reason that] you didn't want to pay for something that was too much? Speech is messy, this is a good example of it.
    – Lambie
    Mar 20, 2023 at 15:41
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Such a sentence structure is typical American sarcasm, where the sarcasm relies on the idiomatic affirmative by negation.

By itself, it is not an idiomatic affirmation by negation. But, it relies on the familiarity of both parties with the common idiomatic affirmative by negation pattern of speech.

I think the gurunaths of the English language have yet to recognize such speech as a distinct form of construction that needs to be christened, have they?

If I am given the recognition, I would issue a linguistic fatwa that such patterns of speech are due to "sarcastic referencing of idiomatic affirmation by negation".

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  • "Such a sentence structure" is not typical in English at the beginning of a sentence. We'd say: Sentence structure such as this...
    – Lambie
    Mar 20, 2023 at 15:21

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