To find out if Bob will go to work or not, we can ask:
(1a) Will Bob go to work?
(1b) Won't Bob go to work?

To find out if Mary is clever or not, we can ask:
(2a) Is Mary clever?
But what does the next sentence mean?:
(2b) Isn’t Mary clever? - does it mean the same as (2a)?

I'm asking it because when google translates (2b) into my language, its translation makes some odd sense as if we were praising Mary. If it's really so, I can't understand why. The structures of (1b) and (2b) are similar and what so special is there in (2b) that there is not in (1b)?

4 Answers 4


It is possible for Isn't Mary clever? to be a straightforward question, asking for confirmation of Mary's cleverness.

But, as you imply, in most cases people would ask that question the other way round, as Is Mary clever? The only context in which the first question would be likely, I think, is in a conversation like

We need somebody clever for this. I wonder who.

Isn't Mary clever?

but it's a pretty unlikely thing to say even in that context. Both the context and (in speech) the intonation of the sentence would make that meaning clear.

However, there is a much more common use of this pattern (a simple negative question) which is not a question at all but an exclamation:

Isn't Mary clever!

and that is what your translator is rendering.

Other examples are:

Didn't he do well!

Won't John be surprised!

Isn't he a clever/good boy! (often said to very small children, and to dogs)

The construction can also be used ironically, so

Aren't you lucky!

might be appreciative "That's a good thing to happen to you!" or ironic "You really didn't want to have to suffer that!"


Negative questions are used to request confirmation of something you belive to be true, rather than to neutrally ask if something is true not not true.

So "Won't Bob go to work?" means "I think Bob will go to work, (or at least I think he ought to go to work) please confirm this."

Similarly "Isn't Mary clever?" means "I think Mary is clever, tell me you agree.". For this reason, asking the negative question implies praise of Mary. The difference between 1b and 2b is that "clever" is a word of praise, but "go to work" isn't.

For this reason, negative questions are often rhetorical. That is you don't expect an answer. Saying "Isn't Mary clever?" is really a way of expressing your opinion. You don't really expect the person to give an actual answer.


The denotation is the same, but the connotation is slightly different:

  • Will Bob go to work? : A straightforward question, with no implied presumption whether he'll work, or not.

  • Won't Bob go to work? : Here, there is a presumption that Bob should go to work, and one is asking why he might not, contrary to the presumption. In context, e.g.,

    • Jill: "Bob's tired of school and needs money."
    • John: "Won't Bob go to work?"
    • Jill: "No, he thinks he'll win the lottery."
  • Is Mary clever? : A straightforward question, with no implied presumption

  • Isn’t Mary clever? : there is a presumption that Mary has shown herself to be clever. N.B.. This may be seen as a sarcastic patronizing or condescending statement, rather offensive. Fine for use in a story to demonstrate the speaker's obnoxious character, but not recommended in daily use.


There is a difference between 'Is Mary clever?' and 'Isn’t Mary clever?'.

We can use negative questions ('Isn't Mary clever?') to confirm information that we think we know. 'Isn't Mary clever?' means Mary is clever.

'Is Mary clever?'- 'Yes, she is.' or 'No, she isn't.'.

'Isn't Mary clever?'- 'Yes, that's right.'

'Isn't Mary clever?'= Mary is clever. (I believe that she is clever.)

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