English agreement

In English, our way to agree with someone is very confusing. I will refer to native English speakers as “we” in this post.

If you’re asked a negative question such as “Don’t you like it?” and you say “No”, this most probably means you don’t like whatever “it” is. But what’s funny in a way is, because of how inherently confusing this structure is, we often go on to clarify our answer: instead of saying “No”, we often say “No, I don’t” just to make sure the person understands what we mean.

If we are asked “Don’t you like it?” and we say “Yes”, that means we do like whatever “it” is (but of course, to clarify, we’d probably instead say “Yes, I do”).

Most Asian languages are the complete opposite of this. In Korean, Japanese, and other Asian and even non-Asian languages, saying “Yes” means you agree with the sentiment of whatever was said, regardless of whether it was positively or negatively worded. That sounds confusing, so here’s an example: If the Asian person didn’t like “it”, then in response to “Don’t you like it?”, they would simply say “Yes,” as in “Yes, I don’t like it” (this could also be communicated as “Indeed, I don’t like it”). The asker asked if the person didn’t like the thing, and that’s what the answerer agrees with.

Let’s do one more example to try and make the difference even clearer. If I ask “No class today?” and there was no class, an English speaker’s response would probably be “No”, as in “No, there is no class today.” However, many non-native English speakers would most likely respond to the question “No class today?” with “Yes.” Because, to them, in response to “No class today?” saying “No” would mean “No, you’re wrong, there actually is class today.”

Another point: when asking for confirmation, we take the negative tense of whatever our verb was. Let me show a few examples:

  • When asking “He is here, isn’t he?”, “isn’t” is the negative form of “is”, which was the first verb in our sentence.
  • Similarly, “She didn’t do it, did she?” Now look at this one. Our first verb is “didn’t”, so to ask for confirmation, we keep the past tense but negate the negative, making it positive, and we say “did” in our question.
  • One more. “I am here, aren’t I?” If you follow the pattern of the two above, then this one doesn’t make sense. We don’t say “amn’t”, we say “aren’t” – it’s an exception. I honestly have no idea with this one, you’re on your own here. English, why?

Compare this to Spanish’s clear-cut “verdad?” or “no?”, Norwegian’s “sant?” or “ikke sant?”, and Dutch’s all-encompassing “?” Of course, English does have the equivalent “right?” and “isn’t that right?”, but these aren’t used very often by natives. They are a fairly safe, non-negating (haha) choice for English learners, though!

English has a lot of language influences and takes on new forms every day in disparate parts of the world; to be able to standardize its speech would be quite a stretch. So I can’t offer a solution to speakers of English other than to be aware of many other languages’ “yes” and “no” response difference, and try and use “right” instead whenever you want to maximize clarity with non-native speakers!

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