English Is Hard: When Your “Yes” Isn’t “Yes,” and Your “No” Isn’t “No”

December 16, 2017 § 5 Comments

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I’m glad I don’t have to learn English as a second language. Not only are there complex sentence patterns and odd figures of speech to figure out. But even the simple and basic things can be problematic. I’m talking about things such as yes and no. That’s about as simple and basic as you can get, right?

Well, my English-learning friends, here are six examples that say otherwise.

• Yeah, no

You hear it a lot. Maybe you say it a lot. It’s pure contradiction, yet it rolls off the tongue. (I caught myself saying it a few days ago and immediately thought, “Where in the world did that come from?” Then I washed my mouth out with two kinds of soap.)

Yeah, no. It comes about in conversations such as,

Do you like pumpkin pie?

Yeah, no, I think it’s great!

Here the meaning of the phrase is “yes,” but in other contexts it can mean “no.” It can also mean “yes” and “no,” with one part answering an actual question and the other answering an implied question. And then there are No, yeah and Yeah, no, yeah and all sorts of other variations. It’s enough to confuse even the most native of speakers. But no worry. You can pretty much ignore it, if you’d like. It doesn’t amount to much. Or does it?

The root of the matter: If you want to chew on the lexical meat of Yeah, no, take a look at Mark Liberman’s post at the University of Pennsylvania’s Language Log, where he analyzes its usage by sex and age and discusses it’s meanings. Also, “Steve at Language Hat” emailed Liberman and pointed to a 2002 article in The Australian Journal of Linguistics, in which the authors say that Yeah, no

serves a number of functions, including discourse cohesion, the pragmatic functions of hedging and face-saving, and assent and dissent.

Further thoughts from Kate Burridge, chair of linguistics at Monash University and coauthor of the aforementioned article, are referenced in The Age (another hat tip to Steve). She says that the phrase’s usage “falls into three main categories, each determined by context”: literal, where the speaker agrees in general with an idea and then adds something else; abstract, where a person accepts and then defuses a compliment; and textual, where someone agrees with what has been said but then goes back to an earlier point.

Kathryn Schulz, in The New Yorker, adds to the analysis, and the variations, with her look at No, totally. She calls the no in this phrase a contranym—a word with two, opposite, meanings—that came about through amelioration—where a negative word develops a second, positive, meaning. Another example of a contranym is dust, which can mean “to remove dust,” as in “dusting a shelf,” and “to add dust,” as in “dusting a cake with powdered sugar.” An example of amelioration is bad taking on the meaning “good,” as in, “I love that song. It’s really baaad!”

So does that mean that no can mean “yes”?

No, yeah, I guess it does.

(Mark Liberman, “Yeah No,” Language Log, April 03, 2008; Kate Burridge and Margaret Florey, “Yeah-no He’s a Good Kid’: A Discourse Analysis of Yeah-no in Australian English,” Australian Journal of Linguistics, volume 22, number 1, October 1, 2002; Birdie Smith, “Slang’s ‘Yeah No’ Debate Not All Negative,” The Age, June 11, 2004; Kathryn Schulz, “What Part of “No, Totally” Don’t You Understand?” The New Yorker, April 7, 2015)

• Yes, he isn’t.

Have you ever asked a non-native English speaker a negative question and gotten a simple “yes” as the answer? For example:

Is John not going to the movie?

Yes.

So now tell me about John’s plans. Are you sure?

For native English speakers, a one-word “Yes” answer isn’t clear (Is it “Yes, he is” or “Yes, he isn’t”?), while a simple “No” most often means “No, he is not going.” I say “most often” because it’s easy to be confused. Therefore, we often follow up the “yes” or “no” with a full-sentence explanation.

The root of the matter: This hasn’t always been a problem. Gretchen McCulloch writes in The Week that things were different around the time from Chaucer to Shakespeare (about 1340 to 1580). Back then, English speakers showed agreement or disagreement with positive statements or questions by responding with “yea” or “nay,” respectively. But negative statements or questions got a “yes” or “no” response. Having the four options helped with clarity. But reduce the possibilities and you increase the potential for confusion.

(Schulz also refers to yes/no/yea/nay in her discussion of No, totally. She writes that totally [or certainly or exactly] may serve as the needed explanation following a no that harkens back to no/nay times and answers a real, or implied, negative question.)

So where is John going? The yes for many English learners would mean “Yes, he isn’t going.” But while that technically makes sense, it doesn’t sound too well to the native-speaker’s ear. That’s because English is a “truth-based” language, which means that speakers answer a negative question with the same particle (yes/no) that they would use for a similar positive question, and the particle agrees with the positive/negative value of the sentence answer (“Yes, he is” or “No, he isn’t). But many other languages are “polarity based.” This means that speakers use the particle that shows agreement or disagreement with the negative proposition of the question (“Yes, he isn’t” or “No, he is”).

But those aren’t hard-and-fast rules. To make matters even more complicated, whether English speakers use yes or no can also depend on whether the question uses notor the contraction n’t (“Is John not going?” vs “Isn’t John going?”), on the questioner’s tone, or even on body language.

Now, is that not interesting?

(Gretchen McCulloch, ‘The Problem with Positive Answers to Negative Questions,” The Week, March 10, 2014; Feifei Li, et al., “Is Mandarin Chinese a Truth-Based Language? Rejecting Responses to Negative Assertions and Questions,” Frontiers in Psychology, December 20, 2016; Anders Holmberg, The Syntax of Yes and No, Oxford, 2016)

• Do you mind?

When we ask a question such as “Do you mind if I sit here?” or “Do you care if I use your pen?” many will answer as if the question were “Is it OK if . . .?” So if you don’t mind, you’d answer “Yes.” But, as above, a one-word answer can be confusing and often needs an explanation—because some people answer the meaning of the question while others answer the actual grammar. While related to the negative-question above, it kind of turns that discussion inside out, since “Do you mind?” and “Do you care?” are actually positive, but the ideas behind mind and care are negative.

I think I’m starting to get confused, here. Do you mind if we move on?

• Double negatives

We all know that logic tells us a double negative makes a positive. Or at least that’s what we’ve been taught. But the truth is, when we hear a double (or triple or quadruple) negative used in colloquial speech, we know that the meaning is most assuredly—and emphatically—negative. So while the prescriptivist grammarian (one who prescribes the way English should be) would say that using double negatives to express a negative thought is incorrect, a descriptivist (one who describes the way English actually is) would disagree, and might say, “That doesn’t make no sense at all.”

The root of the matter: It used to be (back to Chaucer and Shakespeare again) that people didn’t have a problem with negative concord—using more than one negation word in a sentence to express a negative meaning. But in the 1600s, when grammarians decided that the free-wheeling English language was getting out of hand, they used rules from Latin grammar to keep it in check. Not only was Latin the language of the learned, but because it was no longer spoken, it was immune to the conversational transformations of the masses. Therefore, because double negatives were not found in Latin, they should not be present in English.

I do, though, need to insert a caveat here. While this Latin-rule theory is supported by most linguists (see Linda Mitchell and Dick Leith), there isn’t 100% agreement. Amel Kallel has written an entire book arguing that the loss of double negatives was not the cause of Latin-inspired grammarians, but rather came about naturally, on its own.

Regardless of why double negatives have fallen out of favor in modern formal English, they’re not completely absent, especially in the form of litotes. Litotes is saying something by using the negative of its opposite, often with ironic understatement. Therefore, “good” becomes “not bad,” and World War II can be described as “not a small battle.” To make the meaning more clear in spoken English, a double-negative-as-litotes is often expressed by stressing the second negative, as in “Finding happiness in life isn’t nothing.”

I really hope that’s clear, because I ain’t gonna explain it no more.

(Stan Carey, “Ain’t Nothin’ (Grammatically) Wrong with No Double Negatives,” MacMillan Dictionary Blog, April 13, 2015; Linda C. Mitchell, Grammar Wars: Language as Cultural Battlefield in 17th and 18th Century England, Ashgate 2001; Dick Leith, A Social History of English, Routledge, 1983; Amel Kallel, The Loss of Negative Concord in Standard English: A Case of Lexical Reanalysis, Cambridge Scholars, 2011)

• I can’t hardly

If someone says, “I can hardly reach the shelf,” it means that person can barely reach it, or almost can’t, but can. The phrase “I couldn’t care less about what’s on the shelf” means that someone doesn’t care at all, so cannot care to a lesser extent. But we often hear people say “I can’t hardly” and “I could care less.” But rather than having the opposite meanings of their counterparts, they mean the same thing. We could say that these second versions are “wrong,” but in a way, the phrases have become idioms, where the meaning of the entirety stays the same, even if the parts are altered.

The root of the matter: Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, says that could care less shows up before couldn’t care less, appearing in the 1867 serial novel, Birds of Prey as “O, believe me, there is no one in the world who could care less for that than I do.” Notice that no one adds a negative to the sentence, so the speaker is more or less saying, “No one else could care less than me because I, myself, could not care less.”

Now my linguistic research abilities are no match for the folks at Merriam-Webster, but I was able to find an earlier occurrence of could care less. It’s in the April 1, 1864, issue of The Gospel Magazine and Protestant Beacon, where we find,

No living man can write more disinterestedly than I do on this matter; few men in the diocese could care less who are the lucky recipients of Church gifts.

But here too, notice the negation effect of “few,” allowing that while some may be able to care less, the author’s lack of caring makes that difficult.

Stamper then adds that the first couldn’t care less she and her colleagues found is from 1886: “Ralph couldn’t care less for us if he wanted to ever so much,” where, oddly enough, Ralph could not care less not because he didn’t care at all but because he cared so much that he couldn’t stop himself—it wasn’t in his power to not be that caring. (I’ll give you a moment to work through  that one.)

Can’t hardly figure it out . . . or could you care less?

(“Is It ‘I Could Care Less’ or ‘I Couldn’t Care Less’?Merriam-Webster, January 18, 2017; Mary Elizabeth Braddon, “Birds of Preey,” October, 1867; Belgravia: A London Magazine, ; S.G.O, “Abuse of Church Patronage—Family Arrangements,” The Gospel Magazine and Protestant Beacon, April 1, 1864; Ethel Karr, The Australian Guest: A Novel, Remington, 1886;

• Irregardless and inflammable

Simply put, regardless and irregardless mean the same thing: “despite that” or “no matter” (though most consider irregardless nonstandard).

And flammable and inflammable share a meaning, as well: “able to burn easily.”

It doesn’t matter that both pairs look as if they’re made up of opposites.

The root of the matter: Irregardless most likely came about (in the mid 1800s) from combining irrespective with regardless, even though the ir- of irregardless on its own means “not.” In a letter to the editor of The Telegrapher, dated 1869, some Cleveland telegraph operators describe the poor situation in their office by writing about their office manager: “In fact, he is ‘irregardless’ of our comfort.” In this case, irregardless of means something like “uncaring about” or “pays no attention to.”

The Cleveland operators also close with

We do not intend to find fault unnecessarily, but whenever such a spiteful and petty spirit is shown by a sub-official, we shall consider it our duty to inform the fraternity generally, “irregardless” of the result.

It’s interesting that the authors put irregardless in quotation marks, as if the word hasn’t quite come into common usage yet.

In regards to inflammable, lexicographer Ammon Shea tells us that the word can be found in print as far back as 1574, while flammable first shows up in 1655. Both mean “burnable,” because the in in inflammable means “in/into” (as in inflammation), rather than having the meaning “not” (as in incombustible). In the 1920s, the National Fire Protection Association became worried that inflammable would be confused with nonflammable, so they promoted the use of flammable for warning labels, to save us all from lexical confusion . . . and fire.

You say flammable. I say inflammable. Irregardless, we mean the same thing.

(Cleveland Operators, “Petty Tyrany,” The Telegrapher, April 14, 1869; Ammon Shea, “Why Do Flammable and Inflammable Mean the Same Thing?” Dictionary.com)

So, in conclusion, after all this, I offer you, dear English learners, my sympathy.

Thank you very much.

Oh, think nothing of it. Now, to help your confidence, repeat after me: “I can do this, in spite of all the discourse cohesion, contranyms, ameliorations, negative concord, and litotes.”

OK, here goes. I can do this, in spite of all the disc . . . disc . . . I’m sorry, what was that?

Don’t worry. Simply put, English is hard.

I know, right?

Uhh . . . way to sound fluent, but don’t even get me started on that one!

[photo: “Yes or No,” by Quinn Dombrowski, used under a Creative Commons license]

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§ 5 Responses to English Is Hard: When Your “Yes” Isn’t “Yes,” and Your “No” Isn’t “No”

  • Eric says:

    As a longtime English as a foreign language teacher, these are the things that keep me up at night. Why do we say what we say and how on earth could I explain it to my students? In addition to teaching language, I’m also a longtime language learner. The only things that keep me up at night more often than the peculiarities of English are the peculiarities of the Central Asian language I’m currently trying to wrap my tongue around. This language uses helping verbs to give the main verb a specific nuance. A single helping verb can mean that the main verb happened quickly, that the subject of the sentence has the ability to do that action, that the action is possible, or that the action started and is now continuing. And you’ve got exactly 0.02 seconds to determine which one it is within context before the speaker is onto his next thought. Needless to say, I have a love-hate relationship with the nuances of languages! But then (on my best days) I stop and remember how fearfully and wonderfully God designed us. We can communicate mind-numbingly complicated ideas with each other using incredibly subtle grammar, sentence structures, intonation, and body language as easily as we breath. Thanks for these insights. (Again, on my best days) these types of articles actually inspire in me a healthy dose of worship.

  • Hey, in Russian we say “da, nyet,” too. Don’t all languages have stuff like that?

    • Thanks, Phyllis, for the insight from another language. English certainly doesn’t have a corner on the yes/no market. A quick Google search showed me that Russian also has “Da nyet, navernoe” (Yes, no, maybe). Russian must be hard too!

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