How to answer a negative question?



Take the question:

Did you not go to the store?

If I did not go to the store, should I then say yes? Or no?

If I did go to the the store, would my answer then have to be yes or no?

For me I would think that if I did you go to the store, then the answer to the question would be 'yes'.


Posted 2020-01-01T15:47:58.277

Reputation: 309


Does this answer your question? How to answer a negative question in English?

– None – 2020-01-01T15:54:28.390

This is really interesting question! And link from @user2684291 is really useful. By my understanding the best way to answer more fully like "Yes, I didn't." or "No, I didn't." because of (as I just suppose) short form of answer "Yes" or "No" has potential to confuse your partner of dialogue anyway. This isn't depend on are native speaker your partner or aren't. This is question of nature of human mind with negative language structures. – sayfriend – 2020-01-01T17:00:39.073

@sayfriend: I don't agree that there's any possibility of confusion or misunderstanding. The only significance of negating *not* in the question is to convey the fact that *either at time of asking, or at some prior time*, the asker had reason to suppose the addressee *would* have gone to the store (where the non-negated form implies nothing about what the asker might expect). The *actual* answer to any such question would always be framed as if the question *hadn't* been negated. So *No* means No, I didn't go, and *Yes* means *Actually, yes - I did go*. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2020-01-01T17:50:11.843

1Note that colloquial *Irish* commonly employs this kind of "negated question" in contexts where it's a kind of rhetorical question used to make a "slightly surprising" assertion. *I had a fight with Pat lat week, but I saw him in the pub last nigh, and didn't he buy me a pint? Fine fellow, that Pat is!* Where *Didn't X happen?* means *Although it might be hard to believe, X happened*. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2020-01-01T18:48:34.790

@FumbleFingers: Well, obviously you’re not a mathematician. It seems obvious to me that, if you invert the sense of a question, you invert the answer. For example, “Is x < 5?” and “Is x ≥ 5?” Likewise, since the “inside” set and the “outside” set are complements, I perceive “not inside” as being equivalent to “outside”. So “Is the cat not in?” is equivalent to “Is the cat out?” – Scott – 2020-01-03T05:22:43.347

1@Scott: Well, obviously you’re not a linguist! :) It seems obvious to me that language works the way people actually use it, not the way mathematicians and logicians might think it should. Consider how many times someone has said Don't you know I love you?, and got the reply Of course! I venture to suggest that in every case, that reply would be short for *Of course I do know that*, not *I don't*. Natural language isn't exactly the same as the language of mathematics or formal logic systems. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2020-01-03T14:08:38.957

1@sayfriend You're right. It's almost meaningless to answer with a simple yes or no because it's unclear what each of these is referring to, although I believe a possible answer here is in fact no, meaning "I didn't go". Yes, on the other hand, is not idiomatic, and I think it would mean the same thing as no. Yes would be idiomatic if it were followed by I did, with some emphasis perhaps. It's also possible to say the same thing using a no: Did you not go to the store? ~ No (emphatically), I did (also maybe emphatically) go. There are variations in tone and emphasis, though. – None – 2020-01-03T15:47:00.123

@Scott You cannot even in logic "invert the sense of a question"? "Is 5 < x" permits two contradictory answers: "5 is less than x" or "5 isn't less than x." A question does not assert a truth. "Isn't 5 < x" permits the exact same contradictory answers: "5 is less than x" or "5 isn't less than x." The only problem arises as to how to interpret the abbreviated response "yes" and "no.". English elects to interpret those abbreviations without regard to how the question is phrased. It uses "no " if the full response contains "not." It uses "yes" otherwise. – Jeff Morrow – 2020-01-04T22:32:33.323

@JeffMorrow: And that, more or less, is the point I was making: people who speak English have elected to use “Did you not go to the store?” to mean the same thing as “Did you go to the store?”, aside from some connotations and implications — and the fact that the former, despite having the form of a yes-or-no question, cannot be unambiguously answered with “yes” or “no”.  It’s an arbitrary convention, devoid of logic.  And FumbleFingers is the only person on this page who doesn’t understand that the “yes” and “no” answers are ambiguous. – Scott – 2020-01-04T23:40:57.897

@Scott No. Definitions and conventions are not devoid of logic. In the one-point compactification of the real numbers, plus and minus are arbitrary, which is different from illogical. You can make a completely consistent logical development whether you say minus is less than zero or greater than zero. Abelian groups are not "illogical" because non-abelian groups can be conceived. Logically consistent systems always depend eventually on arbitrary postulates. I can build a logically consistent algebra from a+b always equals b+a or from a+b does not always equal b+a. – Jeff Morrow – 2020-01-05T03:16:45.333




If you are asked

Did you go to the store?

"Yes" means that you did go, and "No" means that you did not go.

If you are asked,

Didn't you go to the store?

the negative form of the question almost invariably implies doubt or criticism or both. Answers of a bare "yes" or bare "no" do not address that implication. The answer would normally emphasize the mere substance of the reponse with

Yes, I did


No, I didn't.

If no clarification is added, the usage of "yes" and "no" is the same as though the question were asked in the positive. To avoid potential social misunderstanding, however, ask questions in the positive and answer negative questions with a clarifying "I did" or "I didn't."

ADDITIONAL EDIT: In a comment below, reference is made to a response to a similar question. In that response, the point is made that rhetorical questions are frequently made in negative form.

Haven't I asked her a thousand times not to bang the door?

is not attempting to elcit information, but to elicit agreement and confirmation. Anything other than an emphatic answer is likely to be ill received.

To summarize, questions in negative form usually have a social dimension that is usually addressed by answering with extra emphasis.

Jeff Morrow

Posted 2020-01-01T15:47:58.277

Reputation: 19 401

4The reason the negated version is more likely to elicit an "extended" response is nothing to do with "ambiguity". It's because the negated version either implies the expected answer is Yes (of course I went!) *or* that the asker suspects the addressee *didn't* go, and wishes to imply criticism of his failure to do so. Either way, the addressee is being "pressured" to extend his response with emphatic agreement or defensive contradiction. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2020-01-01T17:59:26.663

You are correct. I have edited the answer. – Jeff Morrow – 2020-01-01T18:25:17.220

Your edit is much more succinct than my attempt to explain what I meant in the comment. Kudos to you! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2020-01-01T18:28:23.693

...I'm glad now that I didn't endorse the "dup" VTC, since I don't think any earlier answers make that point (well, or at all). So I was happy to reverse my previous downvote to your answer after the edit, which means I can't offer any further "bribes" to encourage a bit more "icing on the cake" here. *But* you might want to see if you can weave a reference to the possibility of our example here being a *rhetorical* question (it could be quite natural phrasing even if both parties knew perfectly well that the addressee *did* go). That's mentioned in the earlier "dup". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2020-01-01T18:38:18.777

First, thanks for the initial comment, which was of sufficient length to make even me see your point. I upvoted your comment. Second, I tried to weave in the issue of rhetorical questions. Let me know what you think. And I agree with you about the answer to the other question. It was excellent, but it seemed to slide over the social aspect. – Jeff Morrow – 2020-01-01T18:59:13.083

1People are not 'wired' to deal with negative questions. Generally the negation is 'ignored'. More specifically it means that 'yes' or 'no' are meaningless. A proper answer requires an answer that eliminates the ambiguity. – Klaas van Aarsen – 2020-01-03T00:43:57.423

2@Klaas I disagree that people do not understand questions posed in the negative. "Didn't you buy milk" has the exact same meaning as "Did you buy milk." A logical ambiguity arises in the answer, but, as FF pointed out, that ambiguity is resolved by the rules of English grammar. No one actually answers "Yes" to the question of "Didn't you buy milk" to mean "Yes, I didn't buy milk." The reason that the answer is not a bare "yes" or "no" is because a question phrased in the negative in English almost always has a social dimension that the answer must address. – Jeff Morrow – 2020-01-03T19:48:36.367

I feel that "I did" is a correct answer, and that "Yes, I did" is an inferior answer. That is because the "Yes" part is confusing. Logically it is incorrect, although culturally it seems to be what is expected - that is, it ignores the negation. "I did" is shorter, more to the point, and without any confusing parts. – Klaas van Aarsen – 2020-01-05T22:37:54.337


Did you not go to the store?

Personally I dislike questions like this, for the exact reason you have discovered. I find it best to just sidestep the ambiguity and answer fully:

I went to the store.


I did not go to the store.


Posted 2020-01-01T15:47:58.277

Reputation: 81

1+1. Negations in questions are ambiguous. The only proper answer is one that eliminates the ambiguity. Saying 'yes' or 'no' is plain wrong IMO, since it just creates more confusion. – Klaas van Aarsen – 2020-01-03T00:49:07.067


Did you not go to the store?

If I did not go to the store, should I then say yes? Or no?

If you didn't go then it would be correct to say: No. I didn't.

If I did go to the store, would my answer then have to be yes or no?

If you did so then it would be correct to say: Yes. I did.


Posted 2020-01-01T15:47:58.277

Reputation: 1 228

2+1 it's not a yes/no question due to the way it's asked. So an answer like this is good as it clarified what the yes/no actually applies to – Michael Durrant – 2020-01-02T11:32:38.673

5Essentially you could even remove the yes/no words and then "I did" vs "I didn't" says it all. However that could also be a bit confusing so the full sentence is preferable. – Michael Durrant – 2020-01-02T11:34:00.753

Why? Because they might think I mean, "I didn't [not go to the store]"? – candied_orange – 2020-01-03T21:52:40.427


The question "Did you not go to the store?" contains assumption/suggestion that I went. So the answer should be "Yes, I did" if I went or "No, I didn't" if I did not go to the store. The same in the case of "You went to the store, didn't you?"

Andrzej Czechowski

Posted 2020-01-01T15:47:58.277

Reputation: 1

I am not sure that questions in English invariably assume a positive answer. "Didn't you do your homework" does not contain an assumption that it was done. "Why didn't you complete your homework" actually contains a negative assumption. – Jeff Morrow – 2020-01-03T19:53:38.323

I assume that sentences 'you xxxx , didn't you?' are equivalent to "you xxx, isn't that true?' Of course, I can be wrong. And your second example is slightly different due to question-word 'why'. – Andrzej Czechowski – 2020-01-06T21:01:26.380

Yes, "isn't that true" appended to a declarative statement,tends to imply that an affirmative answer is expected. But "Didn't you go to the store" does not imply that an affirmative answer is expected anymore than does "Did you go to the store" implies an expectation of a negative answer. – Jeff Morrow – 2020-01-06T23:54:02.727

You are right. Sorry for my delayed answer. – Andrzej Czechowski – 2020-01-27T16:50:06.207


Did you go to the store?

is a standard enquiry, so of course "yes" and "no" have their usual meanings.

Did you not go to the store?

is asking for the same information, the difference is that there is an assumption that you did in fact go. For example, if it is Friday and you always go to the store on Fridays, but today you arrived home early, I might ask:

Did you not go to the store?

which really means

I expect that you went to the store. But you arrived home early, which is making me think you might not have gone. So, did you go to the store?

In this case, "yes" means you did go and "no" means you didn't - it's as if there was no "not" in there at all. But it can also depend on intonation. Generally, if you say it in a flat tone, it means as above.

Such a question is rarely ambiguous. But there might be a situation where you're really unsure about how to answer, in which case you might consider using "Yes, I did" or "No, I didn't" to clarify.


Posted 2020-01-01T15:47:58.277

Reputation: 324


First, consider the question without a negative:

Did you go to the store?

This question is asking if you did go to the store. Therefore, 'yes' and 'no' are respectively answers of

[Yes,] I did go to the store


[No,] I didn't go to the store.

You answer 'yes' to indicate that the statement "you did go to the store" is true; 'no' indicates that this statement is false.

The question you wish to answer asks for the negation of this statement

Since the question is now

Did you not go to the store?

you are now answering for the statement "you did not go to the store."

If this statement is true, then you answer yes.

However, as other answers have pointed out, a question phrased this way often displays or conveys a certain expectation, and sometimes isn't even meant as a question. This may be where the uncertainty in how to answer comes from.

Therefore, a full answer that addresses any ambiguity caused by expectations or implications would be

Yes, I did not go to the store.

or the negation,

No, I did go to the store.

(which you might consider as "I didn't not go to the store," which can be difficult to understand for some.)

If you were then to answer the question with solely 'yes' or 'no', you would say 'yes' if you did, in fact, go to the store.

For those unconvinced, consider how one would go about asking for the negation of a question if not in precisely this way - and if the trouble would be worth that interpretation.


Posted 2020-01-01T15:47:58.277

Reputation: 101


"Did you not go to the store?" is a colloquial (possibly Irish) version of 'Didn't you go to the store?" It isn't a simple inquiry about a journey that can be parsed by counting up and cancelling out the double negatives. It's asking why there's no food on the table when the obvious solution would have been a trip to the store. 'Didn't you think of doing that (you idiot!)?'

Possible answers would include 'Sorry, I forgot!' or 'But it isn't MY job!'

Laurence Payne

Posted 2020-01-01T15:47:58.277

Reputation: 795