There appears to be some disagreement over what function yes and no perform in the following sentences:

  1. Yes, you are right.
  2. No, you are mistaken.

According to ODO (yes, no), they are being used as exclamations which are presumably the same as interjections. Webster (yes, no) and Macmillan (yes, no), on the other hand, reckon that they are adverbs. Wiktionary (yes, no) chucks another spanner by stating that yes is being used as an adverb while no is being used as an interjection.

Wiktionary also links to a Wikipedia article on "yes and no" which seemingly disagrees with both options.

The words yes and no are not easily classified into any of the eight conventional parts of speech. Although sometimes classified as interjections, they do not qualify as such, and they are not adverbs. They are sometimes classified as a part of speech in their own right, sentence words, word sentences, or pro-sentences, although that category contains more than yes and no and not all linguists include them in their lists of sentence words. Sentences consisting solely of one of these two words are classified as minor sentences.

So, which, if anything, is it and why is opinion so divided?

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    The first sentence of the Wikipedia quote appears to be entirely correct! And it may answer the "why is opinion so divided" question.
    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 17, 2012 at 18:32
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    Opinion is so divided about their grammatical status because they aren't part of grammar at all, but rather pragmatics, like "Uh-oh", "Mmm-hmmmm", "Uh.....", and many other speech particles. Donatus didn't include speech particles in his original Eight Parts of Speech, but then he didn't include Adjectives, either. Aug 17, 2012 at 20:04
  • @JohnLawler If they are not grammatical, are these lexicographers being lazy or incompetent? Is pragmatics a hypernym for sentence words, word sentences, pro-sentences, and minor sentences? I'd appreciate a detailed answer; thanks! Aug 18, 2012 at 6:37
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    Quite a detailed answer can be found in Georgia Green's Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding and Steven Levinson's Pragmatics. It's a big subject, and largely not covered in dictionaries, which don't deal with grammar, either, after all. I have no idea who those lexicographers you mention are, but I hope they don't lose their job over this. Aug 18, 2012 at 14:30

1 Answer 1


I had a discussion about this recently. We all agreed that Yes and No were minor sentences when used this way. We also hit Wikipedia trying to decide - plus we're not linguists, so its not like our decision was authoritative. But here's our reasoning:

Definition: "A Minor Sentence is one that does not necessarily have a main verb in it, but which can be understood as a complete unit of meaning." When used as you do in your examples, the minor sentence becomes part of a compound sentence.

We went back and forth on a few of the listed other choices, and decided that adverbs were out since Yes isn't modifying the verb directly, and interjections were only valid if the Yes or No was used as a response such as:
Person A: "I've just secured us two tickets to the basketball game tonight."
Person B: "Yes!" (indicating excitement).

As to why opinions are divided, well... English is a bit of an anarchical language. It seems to be human nature that unless there's an established set or rules or an authority to base your arguments on it's hard to convince people to come to agreement.

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    'Minor sentence' is a syntactical description. It doesn't tell us which word class 'yes' and 'no' belong to. Aug 17, 2012 at 18:50
  • @BarrieEngland Marcus_33's position, which strikes me as fundamentally correct, is these words don't belong to any of the ordinary classes of word. Those classes define what role a word may play within a sentence, but 'yes' and 'no' don't play any role within sentences, they are sentences. Aug 17, 2012 at 19:07
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    @BarrieEngland Yah, I know it requires subscription. Grump. But it's - interesting to see that it clings to traditional categories! Aug 17, 2012 at 21:46
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    @coleopterist: The first definition of ‘yes’ as an adverb is ‘A word used to express an affirmative reply to a question, statement, command, etc.’ There are two entries for the adverb ‘no’. The first definition for the first entry is ‘Not, in no way, by no means’. The first definition of the second entry is ‘Expressing a negative reply to a question, request, etc., or introducing a correction of an erroneous opinion or assumption on the part of another person. Also, in reported speech, with ellipsis of verb of speaking.’ Aug 18, 2012 at 7:09
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    @coleopterist: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the mother of all dictionaries, Oxford and otherwise. It was begun in 1857 and published its first volumes between 1884 and 1928. The online version is its modern incarnation. Its entries give full etymological, phonological and historical descriptions and its definitions are supported by citations showing each word’s use. Other Oxford dictionaries such as ODO are stripped down versions aimed at different readerships. Aug 18, 2012 at 7:10

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