With negative questions that require a yes or no, there can sometimes be confusion in the correct way to answer. Grammatically, you may assume that a negative question answered in the affirmative should be a negative statement (i.e. “Doesn’t it look good?” – “Yes it doesn’
t.”). A friend of mine teaching in Vietnam was told that this was given as a rule by one of her fellow teachers, as taught in a reference book. Theoretically this may make sense, but in practice this is NOT how negative questions work. In fact, the answer to a negative question will often be very similar to the answer to a positive question. Here’s why:
The Grammar of Answering a Negative Question
Negative questions generally ask for the same information as the positive form. This may sound confusing, so let’s just look at a few examples:
- Does he like chocolate?
- Doesn’t he like chocolate?
In both cases we are answering whether or not he likes chocolate. The answer provides the same information, it is only the form of the question. So, we can answer both these questions the same way.
- Does he like chocolate? Yes, he does. / No, he doesn’t.
- Doesn’t he like chocolate? Yes, he does. / No, he doesn’t.
The rules here can be hazy, and different negative questions may be more confusing or require different answers – but in practice any native speaker would know that you generally answer a negative question the same way you would a positive one. The reason for this is to do with the correct statement for a clear answer for the required information, not to respond to the specific question form.
So if you need to know how to answer a negative question, do not think about changing the grammatical form, simply consider how you would give the correct information. The next step is to consider where these negative questions come from.
Why do we ask negative questions?
Generally, a negative question is used to add emphasis or surprise. This is usually because we wish to suggest a negative response, when the negative answer is already known or suspected. So while the answer may be applied to both a positive and negative question, the context of the person asking the question can dictate which question is asked.
A common example in English would be “Aren’t you going?” or variations of this form. Consider these two examples:
- “I need a lift to town, are you going to the cinema this evening?”
- “It’s late, aren’t you going to the cinema this evening?”
The answer to both these questions might be “No, I’m not going, I have too much work.” – the contexts for the questions are very different. 1. is asked as an open question (we do not know the answer) 2. is asked in the negative form because the speaker has reason to believe the answer will be negative (it is late so going to the cinema is unlikely).
Bear in mind there are many other contexts and considerations that may be made when negative questions come into play. If you have any examples that you don’t feel fit this general introduction please do let me know!