I was reading My Antonia and came across this line:

[She] asked me if I did not want to go to the garden with her (12)

And was wondering why Cather chose if I did not want over if I wanted. Are these two phrases the same in meaning? Is there a subtle difference between them?

For example, if I said:

I was wondering if you want to go to the park

Would that be the same as saying:

I was wondering if you don’t want to go to the park

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    I noticed that someone voted to close this as it is "Not a real question". Just to reiterate, the question is "Are 'if I did not want' and 'if I wanted' the same in meaning", and "Is there a subtle difference between them." – pasawaya Oct 22 '12 at 3:18
  • See this similar question for some enlightenment: Negative questions vs positive questions – Jim Oct 22 '12 at 3:23
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    Not a subtle difference, there's a radical and purposeful difference, which is no more than what is patently visible. – Kris Oct 22 '12 at 4:17
  • @Kris - Could you elaborate? I for my part cannot discern a difference in meaning between the two. – pasawaya Oct 22 '12 at 4:32
  • @Jim The reference you have cited touches just the peripherals of the question of pragmatics and semantics, and does not match very well with the nature of this post. At least it isn't satisfactory at all. – Kris Oct 22 '12 at 4:54

Semantically speaking, there's no difference. Pragmatically, it's the way Kris describes it.

A Yes/No question (the kind that doesn't start off with a Wh-word) can go either way, because if you're asking whether it's raining, you're also asking whether it's not raining. The answer to one gives you the answer to the other. So, semantically speaking, there's no difference.

However, language is a lot more than semantics. Language is a natural, evolved, phenomenon, and like anything evolved, it doesn't waste anything redundant. So if there are two ways to do something, people will tend to find uses that take advantage of the difference.

In this case, it's an invited inference about the expectations of the speaker; or, depending on context and intent, an invited inference about the beliefs of the speaker about the listener's expectations (pragmatics can get very complicated at times, and shades off into rhetoric, politics, and religion).

Neither one of these, by the way, are grammar -- that's still a third part of language.


I was wondering if you want to go to the park

asks if you are particularly interested (to go to the park) -- particularly 'to go' or 'to the park'. That is, you do mind not going.

I was wondering if you don't want to go to the park

asks if you are particularly averse. That is, you do mind going.

Being cold to the whole idea of going or not going is the third possibility, where it doesn't matter to you either way.

I do not think, though, that formal grammar makes this distinction.

  • Would you mind if I unaccepted to allow for other answers? I would reaccept your answer after a couple days. – pasawaya Oct 22 '12 at 4:45
  • Sure, go ahead. :) – Kris Oct 22 '12 at 4:45
  • I haven't read this text myself but postulate that a prior context is key to unlocking why it was written this way. Analysing the singular sentence on its own is a bit frail. – Chris Oct 23 '12 at 1:53

When these sentences are spoken, as they probably would be, much will depend on the way they are delivered. If the stress in the first is on want, for example, the sentence will suggest doubt in the mind of the speaker over whether a visit to the park is advisable. In the second, if there is stress on park with a rise in pitch, it turns the sentence into a suggestion, with a hope that the answer might be ‘Yes, that sounds like a good idea.’

As John has said, this is a matter of pragmatics (and phonology) rather than semantics and grammar, but, in cases such as this, one branch of linguistics can shed light on another.

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