English agreement

In English, our way to agree with someone is very confusing.

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 “it”. But 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 super sure the person understands which way we lean. If we were asked “Don’t you like it?” and we said “Yes”, that would most likely mean we did 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. If the person didn’t like “it”, then in response to “Don’t you like it?”, they would simply say “Yes.” The asker asked if she didn’t like it, and that’s what the answerer agrees with.

Let’s do one more example to make the difference even clearer. If I say “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, a non-English speaker would most likely respond to the question “No class today?” with “Yes.” In response to “No class today?”, saying “No” would mean “No, 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 our first verb.
  • 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?” We don’t even say amn’t, we say aren’t. 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” whenever you want to maximize clarity with non-native speakers!

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