9

Bob didn't come to office today.

I was asked "Didn't you see Bob today?"

Should I say "Yes, I didn't see him today" or "No, I didn't see him today"?

11

"Didn't you see Bob today?" means that the person asking the question assumes that you saw Bob. The negation works like a tag question, so the sentence basically means the same as "You saw Bob today, didn't you?"

So, the appropriate response should be as if the tag question were omitted.

Speaker 1: any of… "Didn't you see Bob today?" or "You saw Bob today, didn't you?" or "You saw Bob today?" (The three formulations of the question are mostly equivalent.)

Your appropriate response: "No, I didn't see him today."

  • Is it correct to say "the person asking the question assumes that you saw Bob"? – jorel May 30 '14 at 10:26
  • Yes, that's what I said, and I've added a bit more explanation. – 200_success May 30 '14 at 10:39
  • @200_success I'm curious, what would you respond to " You did not go to school today, isn't ? (with strong accuentation on not). In that case you assume that the person stayed home. Would/could you answer " Yes, I did not go to work" ? – P. O. May 30 '14 at 12:07
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    @JoBedard "You did not go to school today, isn't?" is incorrect. "You did not go to school today, did you?" is a proper sentence with a tag question. If I had gone to work instead of school, then I would respond, "You're right, I went to work instead." – 200_success May 30 '14 at 12:15
  • I meant "Yes I did not go to school" not "work" , but it doesn't change anything in your answer. Thanks. – P. O. May 30 '14 at 12:25
5

This ambiguity will trip up even native speakers of English.

The question is leading to a negative answer, it expects the following sentence to start with “No.” In my experience, the answer will start with “No,” regardless of whether the answer confirms or denies the statement in question. Either your “No,” agrees with the negative expectation of the question, or the “No,” disagreeing with the expectatoin of the question.

However, in my experience, if someone just answers “No,” even a native speaker will not be certain enough of that intent and will ask for clarification.

For example:

Didn’t you see Bob today?

No.

‘No,’ you didn’t see him, or ‘no,’ you did see him?

No, I didn’t see him.

or

No, I did see him.

For this reason, native speakers will typically respond with the full intent, “No, I did not see him,” or “No, I did see him,” from the beginning, and avoid the back-and-forth.

Saying “Yes, I did not see him,” might surprise people, as it’s not the expected form, but it won’t confuse. Saying “Yes, I did see him,” will cause less confusion/surprise. But merely answering “Yes,” here is even more ambiguous than answering just “No.”

  • +1 this kind of stuff happens ALL THE TIME with native speakers. Especially if you're responding slow, or think for a second. And you leave them hanging with a yes or no that they didn't expect. And then if you take too long to respond, you forget the wording of the question, and whether or not you should say yes or no. – Cruncher May 30 '14 at 20:33
  • As a programmer and a life-long literal thinker, I hate that the answer to these questions is properly no. This makes sense to me, Q: "You didn't see Bob today?" A: "Yes." (The proposition in your question is true). – ErikE May 30 '14 at 23:03
  • Just as a data point, I (in New Zealand) would say "yes, I did" or "no, I didn't" but never "no, I did" - not with the question phrased as "Didn't you see Bob today?". Also an answer of just "yes" would not seem at all ambiguous to me; it confirms the speaker's assumption. To me, the question would have to be phrased as "You didn't see Bob today?" for your answer to be correct. – Harry Johnston May 31 '14 at 5:25
  • @ErikE: you could answer "true" instead of "yes" if you liked; that would be both understandable and literally correct. :-) – Harry Johnston May 31 '14 at 5:26
  • @HarryJohnston that appeals to me! – ErikE May 31 '14 at 16:45
3

This reminds me of an old pun played on me by my seniors. They asked me to fill in the blank with either of two options - YES OR NO

..... , I'm not a male!

I was trapped. And, I still don't find the proper option.

But then, think for a while. When such questions are asked, we generally make it clear by adding a clause.

Did you break the glass? ~ No, I did not
Didn't you break the glass? ~ No, I did not

Both the sentences though begin in different way has the same answer. No matter what but from the conversation, it's quite clear that the person in doubt has not broken any glass.

In a similar way, it does not matter how the question is asked, you'll have to answer the way you have to!

Didn't you see Bob today ~ Yes, I did OR No, I didn't.
Did you see Bob today ~ Yes, I did OR No, I didn't.

Note that to avoid ambiguity, you have to add a clause justifying your Yes or No. Good to note as Lucian said that usually Yes is followed by an affirmation. Yes, I did not... is not logical.

1

You may simply say:

No, or

No I didn’t, or

No I didn’t see him today.

  • 1
    Can you tell me why "Yes.." is wrong here please? – jorel May 30 '14 at 10:25
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    Usually yes is followed by an affirmation: yes, I did. Yes I didn’t isn’t logical. – Lucian Sava May 30 '14 at 10:31
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    It is logical - that's the whole problem! All other answers are correct in terms of language; But the logically correct agreeing answer to "Didn't you see Bob today?" is "Yes, I didn't see him today". You give an affirmation(!) of some fact. Using "Yes". That fact involves a negation, but in terms of logic, that is not relevant for building the first part of the sentence! – Volker Siegel May 30 '14 at 11:48
  • @VolkerSiegel, in my language it isn’t logical but in English you might be right. Yet I can’t imagine how an YES can be NO, that is to admit a negation using yes, perhaps you would help me understand it. – Lucian Sava May 30 '14 at 12:01
  • @LucianSava To write down the details of the logics, I see it like this: The answer consists of two parts. The first is, whether it's true or false; the second part is just repeating the question to prevent misunderstandings. Now, from the perspective of logics, a question is an expression that can be either true or false. Here, that would be "You didn't see Bob today.". The answer to this is "yes". In terms of logics, the second part is just repetition, so that's all. Oh, and it could be that I misunderstood what you were meaning, seems I use "logics" differently from how you meant it :) – Volker Siegel May 30 '14 at 13:17

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