A name for this phenomenon? (ambiguous meanings of "no")

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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Mar 23, 2009 5:36 pm UTC

csam wrote:So your teacher would be right in terms of official, theoretical grammar or something... it's just that the distinction doesn't exist at all in practice.

Except, English doesn't have any official grammar. So if a distinction doesn't exist in practice, it doesn't exist in English.

The only difference in actual usage between, "Don't you like seafood?" and, "Do you like seafood?" tends to be entirely in the expectations of the speaker. The same one-word or short answer would mean the same for each, but in the first case, the speaker expects a "yes" answer (which is to say, the speaker expects that the listener does indeed like seafood).

For the record, when a speaker expects a negative response, tag questions are used: "You don't like seafood, do you?" In which case the intonation of the question offers additional information (rising like a normal question means I'm unsure and want to confirm with you, falling like a normal statement means I'm pretty sure already and may not be expecting any response on your part).
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Monika » Mon Mar 23, 2009 9:44 pm UTC

csam wrote:
Monika wrote:So when we learned in English class that answering yes to a negative questions expresses opposition, like "doch", we all had serious trouble with this. It feels soooo wrong.

I actually think that in theory, this would actually be the rule. So your teacher would be right in terms of official, theoretical grammar or something... it's just that the distinction doesn't exist at all in practice.

Of course she was right. I just couldn't believe that this could be true :o
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Mar 23, 2009 10:24 pm UTC

Indeed, I didn't read back to the months-old context of Monika's original quote. So I have to disagree with csam's claim that there is no difference in practice between answering a negative question with "yes" or "no". The difference in practice (often, but not always, disambiguated by using "Yes, I do" or "No, I don't" instead of just "yes" or "no") is the same for negative questions as for positive questions.

Of course, these are still only for yes/no questions. Information questions really do differ depending on whether they're affirmative or negative. "What food do you like" will have the opposite answer to "What food don't you like".
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby csam » Tue Mar 24, 2009 2:10 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote: The difference in practice (often, but not always, disambiguated by using "Yes, I do" or "No, I don't" instead of just "yes" or "no") is the same for negative questions as for positive questions.

Sorry, I'm not sure I understand. If you're having a conversation with someone and they ask if you don't like seafood, is it the same in practice as if they were to ask if you like seafood?

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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Monika » Tue Mar 24, 2009 2:53 pm UTC

csam wrote:Sorry, I'm not sure I understand. If you're having a conversation with someone and they ask if you don't like seafood, is it the same in practice as if they were to ask if you like seafood?

It is.

Do you like seafood?
Yes, I like seafood.
No, I don't like seafood.

Don't you like seafood?
Yes, I like seafood.
No, I don't like seafood.

See, no matter whether the question is positive or negative, you still answer yes or no to say that you do or don't like seafood. Just as if the "not" weren't present in the question at all. Strange, very strange.

Not so in languages that have a different word for yes when answering negative questions.

German: Ja, nein, doch.

Magst du Spaghetti?
Ja, ich mag Spaghetti.
Nein, ich mag Spaghetti nicht / ich mag keine Spaghetti.

Magst du Spaghetti nicht? / Magst du keine Spaghetti?
Doch, ich mag Spaghetti.
Formally correct: Nein, ich mag Spaghetti nicht / ich mag keine Spaghetti.
Common answer: Ja, ich mag Spaghetti nicht / ich mag keine Spaghetti.

French: Oui, non, si.

Est-ce que tu aimes les spaghettis?
Oui, j'aime les spaghettis.
Non, je n'aime pas les spaghettis.

Est-ce que tu n'aimes pas les spaghettis?
Si, j'aime les spaghettis.
Non, je n'aime pas les spaghettis. (Not sure if it also would be okay to use oui to express the affirmation in this case.)

(My French isn't that great, I think you might have to change from les spaghettis to de spaghettis in the negative sentences, but I don't remember clearly.)
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Grop » Tue Mar 24, 2009 3:10 pm UTC

Monika, your French sentences are correct. And indeed it would be odd (I think) to answer Oui, je n'aime pas les spaghettis to a negative question. Merely answering Oui would be ambiguous.

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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby csam » Tue Mar 24, 2009 3:11 pm UTC

Monika wrote:
csam wrote:Sorry, I'm not sure I understand. If you're having a conversation with someone and they ask if you don't like seafood, is it the same in practice as if they were to ask if you like seafood?

It is.

Do you like seafood?
Yes, I like seafood.
No, I don't like seafood.

Don't you like seafood?
Yes, I like seafood.
No, I don't like seafood.

See, no matter whether the question is positive or negative, you still answer yes or no to say that you do or don't like seafood. Just as if the "not" weren't present in the question at all. Strange, very strange.

I actually meant more along the lines of:
"Ew, no thanks."
"You don't like seafood?"
You can respond with no to negate the negative question:
"No, I do like seafood, I just don't like oysters"

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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Mar 24, 2009 3:53 pm UTC

csam wrote:I actually meant more along the lines of:
"Ew, no thanks."
"You don't like seafood?"

That's not a negative question as I meant it. That's a negative statement intoned as a question. A negative question is "Don't you like seafood?"
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Schmorgluck » Tue Mar 24, 2009 8:42 pm UTC

There's the same distinction in French. An interro-negative formally constructed implies that the person who asks assumed the contrary. "N'aimes-tu pas l'andouillette ?" ("Don't you like andouillette?") ≈ "Je croyais que tu aimais l'andouillette." ("I thought you liked andouillette.")

Out of curiosity, which method uses Lojban to solve the ambiguity of answering a negative?
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby muffin of doom » Thu Mar 26, 2009 1:16 am UTC

csam wrote:I actually meant more along the lines of:
"Ew, no thanks."
"You don't like seafood?"
You can respond with no to negate the negative question:
"No, I do like seafood, I just don't like oysters"

Sure, you can, but I think it only works if you add some kind of explanation, as you did in your example. Consider:

"You don't like seafood?"
"No."

To me, that pretty unequivocally means, "I don't like seafood." On the other hand, if you answer simply "Yes," then I think you will just get a weird look from whoever you are talking to because it's not clear what you mean. To express agreement ("I don't like seafood"), you could say "Yes, that's right," or "Yeah, not so much," but "Yes" by itself seems ambiguous to me, whereas "No" by itself seems (to me) unambiguously to indicate agreement.

Not sure if that helped move the conversation forward or simply drag it back into confusion, but I wanted to throw in my two cents.

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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Monika » Thu Mar 26, 2009 12:25 pm UTC

muffin of doom wrote:Sure, you can, but I think it only works if you add some kind of explanation, as you did in your example. Consider:

"You don't like seafood?"
"No."

To me, that pretty unequivocally means, "I don't like seafood." On the other hand, if you answer simply "Yes," then I think you will just get a weird look from whoever you are talking to because it's not clear what you mean. To express agreement ("I don't like seafood"), you could say "Yes, that's right," or "Yeah, not so much," but "Yes" by itself seems ambiguous to me, whereas "No" by itself seems (to me) unambiguously to indicate agreement.

Not sure if that helped move the conversation forward or simply drag it back into confusion, but I wanted to throw in my two cents.

This would explain why some languages have an extra word for "yes" (to express opposition) when answering negative questions, but they still use "no" in the same way as if the question were asked in the positive form.
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Simbera » Mon Mar 30, 2009 1:34 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:The only difference in actual usage between, "Don't you like seafood?" and, "Do you like seafood?" tends to be entirely in the expectations of the speaker. The same one-word or short answer would mean the same for each, but in the first case, the speaker expects a "yes" answer (which is to say, the speaker expects that the listener does indeed like seafood).

(emphasis mine)

I'm having trouble picturing a conversation in which this is the case. When would "Don't you like seafood?" be used when the speaker expects the response to indicate that they do like seafood?

Incidentally, that sentence can slot perfectly in to the place vacated by "You don't like seafood?" in this:

"Ew, no thanks."
"You don't like seafood?"

This is the type of situation I imagine it being used in (and indeed the only situation I can imagine it)

*refusal of seafood*
"Don't you like seafood?"
*expecting them to say 'no' because of said refusal*

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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Mar 30, 2009 2:41 pm UTC

Simbera wrote:When would "Don't you like seafood?" be used when the speaker expects the response to indicate that they do like seafood?

I suppose it depends on the word stress pattern. "Don't *you* like seafood?" would definitely, for me and everyone I've had this sort of conversation with, mean that I expect you to say that you do. "Don't you *like* seafood?" might, as you suggest, have similar meaning to "You don't like seafood?", in that I believe you don't but am expressing surprise at that fact.

(Incidentally, every textbook from which I've taught negative questions confirms my feeling that they're usually used when the speaker expects an affirmative answer, so I doubt my own experience conflicts with general usage.)
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Monika » Mon Mar 30, 2009 7:30 pm UTC

Simbera wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:The only difference in actual usage between, "Don't you like seafood?" and, "Do you like seafood?" tends to be entirely in the expectations of the speaker. The same one-word or short answer would mean the same for each, but in the first case, the speaker expects a "yes" answer (which is to say, the speaker expects that the listener does indeed like seafood).

(emphasis mine)

I'm having trouble picturing a conversation in which this is the case. When would "Don't you like seafood?" be used when the speaker expects the response to indicate that they do like seafood?

I would expect "yes" when someone asks "don't you ...?". Example:

A, at the buffet, walks past the seafood to something else.
B: Don't you like seafood? (I clearly remember you do.)
A: Oh yes, you're right, I do like seafood a lot, but
- not this type of seafood
- my doctor told me I had to cut down on it because of the heavy metal contamination.

If B thought A really didn't like seafood or was unsure, it would be more like:
B: Do you dislike seafood?
A: Yes, I dislike seafood. / No, I don't dislike seafood, but ...

Or maybe:
B: Do you not like seafood?
A negative question, but more like the second one where B isn't sure or expects A not to like it. But "dislike" sounds better than "not like".
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby kernelpanic » Mon Mar 30, 2009 8:04 pm UTC

Simbera wrote:I'm having trouble picturing a conversation in which this is the case. When would "Don't you like seafood?" be used when the speaker expects the response to indicate that they do like seafood?

Persons A and B are at the beach, walking, when they see a seafood restaurant they read about last week. B proposes the go in, but A refuses.
B: Don't you like seafood?
A: Yes, I do, but today I want to eat pasta.
B's line can be replaced with "I thought you liked seafood" and be exactly the same.
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby keeneal » Mon Mar 30, 2009 10:31 pm UTC

Monika wrote:If B thought A really didn't like seafood or was unsure, it would be more like:
B: Do you dislike seafood?
A: Yes, I dislike seafood. / No, I don't dislike seafood, but ...


Yes, that would be the most unambiguous form, but no one talks that way unless they're making an effort to. You would definitely hear "You don't like seafood?" or "Don't you like seafood?" more often. Which is the "expected" meaning depends on the inflection. Generally, I agree with Gmalivuk.
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Simbera » Wed Apr 01, 2009 10:28 am UTC

Ahh, now I see - I didn't mean to imply that you were wrong, in fact it made a lot of sense to me, I was just having a mental blank as to what context it would appear in.

It seems to me to sort of work in the same way as those polite negative questions, like "I couldn't borrow a pen?" in that in both cases you are expecting a yes but wish to phrase it more elegantly than "You like seafood, right?" or "Give me a fucking pen, you gosh-darned cunt!"

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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Monika » Wed Apr 01, 2009 11:42 am UTC

Well, guess where the pen would end up if you asked like that.
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby AVbd » Thu Apr 02, 2009 3:55 pm UTC

Velifer wrote:Do what my 2-year-old does. Answer them literally with a one word "yes" or "no." Then just look at them. People stop and have to untangle their own string of double negatives to find out what the answer means.

Basically, any natural language (and artificial language, really), needs there to be an unconscious understanding between the people speaking in order for it to work. When we say there are twenty sheep in the field, the listener assumes there are no more than twenty, even though that's not technically being stated (because why would you say 20 when there were clearly 21?) When we reply to something with something unrelated, the person will attempt to relate it to the conversation (e.g. if I replied ‘I just had my appendix out’ to ‘let's get seafood’, it's not technically related, but the listener will infer the refusal quite easily by relating it to the conversation). So there is an assumption when we speak that the other person will be adding to the conversation, rather than just spouting random jibberish, and we will try to resolve whatever they say to be relevant (the webcomic xkcd, which I heard was quite popular among the people of exkochamber.me, recently had a comic relevant to this (but I can't find it as my Internet seems to be crawling right now) — No Pun Intended). Anyway, your two-year-old is giving the person they're talking to less information than what the person expects, so they attempt to infer that information from what they've said and from context clues, and they get confused as the inferrence isn't there, because your two-year-old isn't really cooperating with them. Not that there's anything wrong with that. (Did the start of this paragraph confuse anyone? It wasn't very relevant to what was quoted, so you might have tried to resolve what I was saying to be relevant. Not that I did that intentionally; it's just nearly 3am here.)

In response to the OP, you're not really agreeing with them. You're really backchannelling (I think, although replying ‘yep’ or ‘nope’ sounds weird to my, Australian, ears); this is basically where you make sounds or use simple phrases to encourage the speaker, to indicate interest, sympathy, or, in the case you're interested in, agreement. Backchannelling disagreement doesn't make sense, because you wouldn't be encouraging them to continue, you'd want to voice your own dissenting opinion on the matter. So the way you'd say ‘no’ would be to interrupt them, or something like that.

‘Do you mind’ questions aren't really questions; they're requests; and the person making the request is trying to be polite by making the ‘question’ about the other person, rather than themself. So the person answering wouldn't generally answer with a yes or a no — unless they're trying to be pedantic — they'd answer with something that implies approval or disapproval (e.g. ‘sure’, or ‘I'm using it right now’).

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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby Velifer » Thu Apr 02, 2009 6:26 pm UTC

AVbd wrote:your two-year-old is giving the person they're talking to less information than what the person expects, so they attempt to infer that information from what they've said and from context clues, and they get confused as the inference isn't there, because your two-year-old isn't really cooperating with them.

That's the thing. If I do that to someone, it's because I'm being a dick. When he does it, it is entirely guileless. He is cooperating. When I rephrase a question without a negative, his answer changes, but his intent does not. He's certainly capable of playing word games, but in these cases he is just giving what he thinks is a very straightforward answer. Recently that's started to change, as he is now beginning to give the expected qualified answers.

AVbd wrote:Basically, any natural language (and artificial language, really), needs there to be an unconscious understanding between the people speaking in order for it to work.

Yup. BTW, Who's on first.
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different interpretations of "no"

Postby alant » Thu Jun 18, 2009 3:56 am UTC

Hi, my friend and I were talking and this came up:

her: things you'll never tell me?
me: of course not
her: lol gee thanks
me: so like, "of course not i would never tell you. i would tell you."
her: oh no you lost me. wait i get it. well that makes me feel better
me: these situations are confusing, i wonder if there is a term is for it.

So, i guess my question is, what is the term for when "no" can be interpreted as either an affirmative or negative response?

On a side note, I find it very ironic that my first post is in the language/linguistics fora when I usually lurk in the science fora.

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Re: different interpretations of "no"

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jun 18, 2009 4:08 am UTC

I don't know that there is a term for it, but I went ahead and merged your question with the existing discussion on the topic.
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Re: A name for this phenomenon? (ambiguous meanings of "no")

Postby sparks » Sun Jun 21, 2009 2:33 am UTC

This also exists in certain situations in Portuguese, I think, though it's nearly 4 AM and I can't really think of any.
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Re: Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Postby InkL0sed » Tue Jun 23, 2009 1:58 am UTC

Schmorgluck wrote:There's the same distinction in French. An interro-negative formally constructed implies that the person who asks assumed the contrary. "N'aimes-tu pas l'andouillette ?" ("Don't you like andouillette?") ≈ "Je croyais que tu aimais l'andouillette." ("I thought you liked andouillette.")


It's probably an Indo-European feature, but I'm sure it's in all Romance languages, because Latin has a question word that has the same meaning: "num"

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Re: A name for this phenomenon? (ambiguous meanings of "no")

Postby Sasha » Wed Jun 24, 2009 5:08 am UTC

I've heard them referred to as Hobson's choice.
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Re: A name for this phenomenon? (ambiguous meanings of "no")

Postby legion » Tue Jul 21, 2009 5:00 pm UTC

I think maybe it might possibly be referred to as "negative polarity licensing". Entirely unsure, though.

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Re: A name for this phenomenon? (ambiguous meanings of "no")

Postby Shivari » Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:12 am UTC

Going back to the "Don't you like seafood?" idea, I think that any ambiguity over the expectation of the answer can be remedied by putting "Don't you" in another question that's clearer. For example, in "You feel bad about it, don't you?", it's pretty clear that the questioner is expecting an affirmative response from the questioned, so using "don't you" in other questions will likely entail the same expectation.

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Re: A name for this phenomenon? (ambiguous meanings of "no")

Postby navigatr85 » Wed Jul 22, 2009 4:17 pm UTC

I just wanted to mention, I noticed this kind of thing a long time ago, in my own speech and others' speech. Then, realizing that it was ambiguous, I forced myself to break the habit. I think I might be overly observant of linguistic quirks like this. I think it happens most often with negative statements intoned as questions, as someone mentioned. For example:

-------------------------------
"Oh, he's not working at the bookstore anymore?"
"No."
-------------------------------
"Oh, he's not working at the bookstore anymore?"
"Yeah."
-------------------------------

These two responses basically mean the same thing. The "No" in the first response is ambiguous, but it's more likely to be interpreted as meaning that the guy DOESN'T work at the bookstore. So I kind of got myself into the habit of noticing these kinds of questions and responding differently. If I want to say that the guy really isn't working there anymore, I say:
-------------------------------
"Oh, he's not working at the bookstore anymore?"
"That's right."
-------------------------------

If I want to say that the guy really IS still working there, I say:
-------------------------------
"Oh, he's not working at the bookstore anymore?"
"No, he is."
-------------------------------

I use these kinds of responses when I don't feel like making a longer response, in the same type of situation where "Yeah" or "No" would sometimes be used. If I DO feel like making a longer response, I usually elaborate more to remove more ambiguity, like this:
-------------------------------
"Mike's painting his house today."
"Oh, he's not working at the bookstore anymore?"
"That's right, he got laid off a few weeks ago."
-------------------------------

-------------------------------
"Mike's painting his house today."
"Oh, he's not working at the bookstore anymore?"
"No, he is, but he has this whole week off."
-------------------------------

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Re: A name for this phenomenon? (ambiguous meanings of "no")

Postby Duncan » Tue Jul 28, 2009 10:02 am UTC

Similarly to navigatr, I recently became very consciousof this kind of ambiguity in negative questions.

I found that responding "indeed" for an affirmative response largely eliminates this amiguity:

"Don't you want to go to the movies?"
"Indeed."

Of course, this just sounds pretentious.

What really frustrated me is that in normal conversation, people tend to answer the question ignoring the negation. For example, answering "no" to the above question would generally be taken as not wanting to the movies. I believe that such responses should be treated as a logical statement which can be simplified to the responder's intention:

no "Don't want to go to the movies"
no Do not want to go to the movies
no not (want to go to the movies)
want to go to the movies

But yeah, just answering "Yes" or "No" and having people ask "What do you mean", followed by my response "Don't ask ambiguous questions" is immensely satisfying.

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Re: A name for this phenomenon? (ambiguous meanings of "no")

Postby Monika » Tue Jul 28, 2009 10:50 am UTC

Duncan wrote:What really frustrated me is that in normal conversation, people tend to answer the question ignoring the negation.

Which, in English, is correct.

For example, answering "no" to the above question would generally be taken as not wanting to the movies. I believe that such responses should be treated as a logical statement which can be simplified to the responder's intention:

no "Don't want to go to the movies"
no Do not want to go to the movies
no not (want to go to the movies)
want to go to the movies

Logical, but incorrect in languages like English.

Likewise it would be logical that double negations mean a positive ("don't do nothing" -> "do something"), instead in some languages it's formally correct to use them to express negation and in English it's common colloquially ("don't do nothing" -> "don't do anything" / "do nothing").

But yeah, just answering "Yes" or "No" and having people ask "What do you mean", followed by my response "Don't ask ambiguous questions" is immensely satisfying.

Immensely satisfying to you, immensely annoying to everybody you talk to.
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