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Imagine this: You have to answer a yes/no question but it is so complex that you can't even just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You do know the answer (or an answer), but you know that the question is open and it's not possible to reduce the answer to a ‘true/false’ value because actually the answer lies in between. One of the most idiomatic words in Spanish for that is (literally no + sí). For example:

—Is history written by the victors?
—Umm, ... (the one who has to answer thinks it's true and it looks true for the most part but still there are some good counterexamples to refutate, etc.)

Do you have any similar and truly idiomatic single word? If not, what would you say? Yo? Maybe, nes? If not, at least is there any idiomatic phrase that can be used?

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  • Is your contraction perhaps a rioplatense regionalism or some recent internet invention? I ask because I’ve never come across it before. It’s not in the DRAE, which only documents the commonplace atonic version meaning nor or which is the short form of ni siquiera.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 18 at 20:21
  • @tchrist Probably both of those things. Is not a word so well documented and is used only in spoken language, not written. (significadode.org/n%C3%AD.htm) this is the only place where i found somehting alike.
    – tac
    Commented Jun 18 at 20:41

2 Answers 2

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In Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter recommends answering "mu" (the Chinese word for "nothing") to yes/no questions that don't have a straightforward answer. This is useful for trick questions like "Have you stopped beating your wife?" -- answering "yes" implies that you were previously beating your wife, and "no" means you're still beating your wife.

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English is typically more information dense than Spanish (Why does speech speed seem to vary between different languages?), meaning that English typically uses fewer syllables than Spanish does to express the same idea. But in this case, the idiomatic expression in English is longer. We don't have any common one-word response like .

In English, we say, "yes and no".

yes and no idiom

—used when there is both a positive and a negative answer to a question
"Are you happy with your job?" "Yes and no."

Merriam-Webster

This idiom is well attested in writing, though it's somewhat informal, so it's more common in speech (or transcripts). Here are some examples spanning the past hundred-plus years:

Q. In other words, they didn't bid against each other to any great extent — A. Well yes; and no; I think they did to a considerable extent the first day.

White Earth Reservation. No. 1[-49] Hearings Before the Committee on Expenditures in the Interior Department

Mr. Curtis: So its [Trieste's] economic position is still in connection with Austria, would you say —

Mr. Williamson: Unfortunately — well, yes and no. Historically it served as the outlet for the whole upper Danube area. There is very little need for any outlet for that area right now...

Federal Supply Management. (overseas Survey) Conferences

"But really, you must agree that the government had no choice but to adopt this law, it was a crisis situation." He was not entirely satisfied with my response: "Well, yes and no."...

Yes, the prohibition of religious insignia in schools and public services is crucial to preserving the neutrality of public space. No, in theory, a new law was not essential to do this...

Hijab & The Republic: Uncovering the French Headscarf Debate (Gender and Globalization series)

"So much going on in the sessions. They sound busy."

"Well, yes and no. They are, and yet there have been times of real reflective silence and stillness in the room."

Counselling for Eating Disorders in Men: Person-centred Dialogues

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  • I'd certainly use this on occasion, but OP asks for a single word answer. There isn't one; the only thing to do is reply with a frame challenge (eg 'mu': not a yes-no question). Commented Jun 18 at 22:27

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