How to answer a negative question in English?

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5

Q: "Don't you know?"

If I really don't know, how should I respond to this question? Yes or No?

There's a similar question on EL&U, but the answer isn't clear how it works:

Also here on ELU too:

These answers are confusing. I want to know what one word answer I can use. In other words I want to know:

  • What will native speakers understand if I reply No to this question?

  • What will native speakers understand if I reply Yes to this question?

sarvesh kumar

Posted 2015-10-21T05:25:42.610

Reputation: 129

10"No, I don't." would be ideal – Mamta D – 2015-10-21T05:27:22.730

1Can't it be answered with only Yes or No? Again similar question:) – hard coder – 2015-10-21T05:32:20.243

1If the conversation is informal, yes, short 'no' works. But don't prefer that though. – Maulik V – 2015-10-21T05:38:59.317

2Answering yes or no by itself can be misinterpreted. It is always better to add confirmation "I do/I don't". – user3169 – 2015-10-21T05:45:07.130

How about asking 'what' as an answer for something that you don't know. :) – Rucheer M – 2015-10-21T06:03:07.393

1Just look up in the sky/ceiling, and they will know. I agree with @user3169 You can say: No, I don't know." – Usernew – 2015-10-21T06:59:02.597

1@RuchirM asking "what" might make the asker repeat his/her question. :) – Usernew – 2015-10-21T07:02:10.920

1@MaulikV I don't think the OP's concerns are clear, because most close voters assume that every language works like English, and therefore completely misunderstood the OP's very simple question. I've edited the question to make the issue clear. Perhaps you could help with a reopen vote? [or a unilateral reopening, in this case?] It's a straightforward grammar issue. Not a matter of opinion at all! – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-10-21T15:28:52.563

1Sarvesh, do you really mean what is said here after this heavy editing? – Maulik V – 2015-10-21T17:16:08.267

@Araucaria another good solution. Let this remain closed as you too believe this; and I ask the same question in a different way because I'm clear about what all happened here in comments and how exactly you took this question positively. – Maulik V – 2015-10-22T05:17:00.223

@Araucaria if I reopen the question and you undo your edit, it'll be again ambiguous. The problem is the 'depth' you see in this question, the OP seems to be completely unaware of! :) – Maulik V – 2015-10-22T05:18:33.713

Answers

14

I believe I understand your concern because similar confusion arose at some point in my English study, too, due to a linguistic difference between my native tongue and English. Your language is perhaps like mine, Thai, where you answer to the truth condition of the statement of the question rather than the truth itself. For example, if you ask, in Thai, "aren't you going to school today?" and the answer is "yes," the answerer means they are not going to school. "Yes" here is "yes, (it is true that I am not going to school)," not "yes, (I'm going to school.)"

I think it helps if you think of English as somewhat simpler than that. In English, whether you answer "yes" or "no" only depends on the reality and has nothing to do with how the question is worded. Whether the question is "do you know?" or "don't you know?," "yes" and "no" still have the same meanings: in both cases, if you answer "yes," it means "you know," and if you answer "no," it means "you don't know."

Answering with plain "yes" or "no," however, may sound too flat and could sometimes be misunderstood, so it's safer to respond with a complete answer like "yes, I do." (meaning, you know) or "no, I don't" (meaning, you don't know) if you can't think of anything fancier like "no, I never knew," or "no, this is the first time I've heard about it!"

As stated by other Answerers, one thing to consider is that sometimes "don't you know?" is a rhetorical question, meaning the speaker doesn't actually expect an answer, so you don't have to answer them. You usually can guess from context whether it is an actual question or not.

user1513

Posted 2015-10-21T05:25:42.610

Reputation:

4

"Don't you know?" people ask such kind of question is because they though you should know. so your answer to this question is more likely to be negative. you should answer with the reason why you don't know him.

such as "No, I never heard about that."

sotondolphin

Posted 2015-10-21T05:25:42.610

Reputation: 740

3

There are 2 common uses for this phrase - there is the 'slightly posh' "Don't you know" as an end-of-sentence, which is essentially just emphasis & not requiring an answer. Not common these days in speech but you'll see it in older books & films.

The main one is generally where you might have been expected to know something - so, often a rhetorical (or patronising) element to it, which is worth being alert to. It is perhaps worth observing that in more formal use, this expands to "do you not know" (or "did you not know") & NOT "do not you know" as you might have expected!

The usual forms of answer would be "No, I don't", or "Yes, I do" although there is quite likely to be some form of addition, the sharper "No, actually, I don't" or "No, could you tell me please?". If in doubt, keep it simple!

It is possible to use a simple "No" but I think it would be unusual in speech - mainly because of the subtle implications rather than a hard grammatical rule - and therefore the inflections would be important; so a rising pitch, as a question, would probably draw an explanation.

Mark Williams

Posted 2015-10-21T05:25:42.610

Reputation: 748

1I don't think you quite understand the OP's question!! What he wants to know is whether to give an affirmative or negative response. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-10-21T15:26:34.850

1@Araucaria That rather depends on whether the speaker actually knows or does not know. This question is not some kind of bizarre logic trap in which "yes" and "no" evaluate to the same thing. Saying "yes" or "no" by themselves are ambiguous, but the "I do/don't" confirmation makes it unambiguous. – Crazy Eyes – 2015-10-27T16:29:28.337

1@CrazyEyesThe OP's question is not "What can I do to be understood" but "What would my reply mean if I said Yes". They state in their comments: Can't it be answered with only Yes or No? Again similar question:) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-10-27T16:33:10.087

@CrazyEyes A one word reply is not ambiguous here for a native speaker :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-10-27T16:35:46.513

3

Some of the confusion arises from the facts (a) that the premise behind the question is the opposite of the literal words of the question, and (b) that the question does not actually seek a literal answer.

"Don't you know?" is basically a rhetorical question. The person asking that question actually assumes that you do in fact "know," and since it is assumed that you do in fact "know," no response is required.

However, when you actually do not "know" and wish to make that fact known, the correct one-word answer would be "No."

I think that the main reason for confusion arises from the fact that the question is asked in the negative and the concern is that a response of "No" is a second negative, which combined with the first negative would result in a positive.

However, double negatives do not arise in a two-party exchange. The double negative that results in a positive statement occurs only when both negatives are articulated by the same party within a single statement.

(Note: Even though the correct one-word response would be “No,” most native speakers, whether they are the asker or the answerer, would prefer the more expanded response of “No, I don’t,” because for either party that short-cuts the need to mentally analyze the effect of the negative question and the negative response.)

PAnnCampbell

Posted 2015-10-21T05:25:42.610

Reputation: 72

People with an Upper-Midwestern (American) accent often append "don'cha know?" to the ends of sentences. They often mean it as a humorous statement of conventional wisdom, and do not expect a reply to the question. In your words, it "is basically a rhetorical question." – Jasper – 2015-10-28T20:15:45.773

3

As usual it depends somewhat on the context, but the phrase "Don't you know?" is very often not so much a question as an expression of surprise, as in:

Alice: I'm going to visit Bob in hospital this afternoon
Cathy: My Goodness, what happened to Bob?
Alice: Don't you know? He's had appendicitis

In which case an answer isn't really required. If Alice is still unsure if Cathy really doesn't know, she may pause for an answer before elaborating, in which case it would go

Alice: I'm going to visit Bob in hospital this afternoon
Cathy: My Goodness, what happened to Bob?
Alice: Don't you know?
Cathy: No, I haven't heard anything
Alice: He's had appendicitis

I would not recommend a one word answer to this question, but whether you go for a simple yes/no or a longer sentence an affirmative "yes" says "I do know" and "no" says "I do not know". Given that the asker felt the need to ask, the answer will almost always be "no".

Joseph Rogers

Posted 2015-10-21T05:25:42.610

Reputation: 1 056