Was this supposed to be ‘cupboard’ instead of ‘cupbard’?
Wasn’t this supposed to be ‘cupboard’ instead of ‘cupbard’?

I was asking about a spelling error and I was confused if I should use "was" or "wasn't". Which one is better and how are they different?

  • "Aren't you supposed to be doing your homework?"
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 12:50

3 Answers 3


Let's look at a simpler example. Someone you haven't spoken to for a while phones you up, and you say "Great to hear from you!"...

1: ..."Was it a month ago when we last spoke?"
2: ..."Wasn't it a month ago when we last spoke?"

you're walking down the street with your friend, who says...

3: "Is that your husband across the street there?"
4: "Isn't that your husband across the street there?"

The negated versions more strongly imply speaker thinks the answer should probably be Yes, but the non-negated versions don't really imply any "expected" answer.

  • 2
    +1, and even Shakespeare used this... "Isn't this a dagger which I see before me?" would have sounded very different from "Is this a dagger which I see before me?".
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 13:24
  • 6
    Just out of curiosity, I asked chatgpt Do any lines in shakespeare start with "Is this not..."? - to which it replied No, there are no lines in the works of William Shakespeare that start with the exact phrase "Is this not..." Shakespeare's plays and sonnets contain numerous memorable lines and phrases, but none of them begin with that. Then I clicked "regenerate response, and it came back with There is a line in Shakespeare's play "Hamlet" that starts with "Is this not": "Is this not the most high, majestic, and rightful Prince of Denmark?" (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2). TOTALLY MADE UP! Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 14:22
  • 1
    +1 You can remove "I'd say". Your answer is correct ;)
    – gotube
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 15:15
  • 1
    @gotube: (I'd say :) you're quite correct! I do sometimes make mistakes. So I might say it's almost always X even when in principle I'd be perfectly familiar with Y and Z as far-from-unknown alternatives - which I just happened not to think of at the time because I'm not that mentally agile. But it's not really helpful to learners to spatter your answer with such weaselly disclaimers. I should perhaps take a leaf out of chatgpt's book - it always sounds supremely confident, even when when it's saying is completely fictitious "hallucination" as per previous comment! Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 15:43
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers Formal instructions such as "Press 'Call Supervisor' if customer becomes aggressive" is actually specifically somewhere I might expect the article to be omitted (but only really if it were given in writing). In such cases, brevity might be considered more important than being strictly grammatical. In more of a conversational sentence, it sounds very odd.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 11:05

I believe the answer by FumbleFingers is correct about the difference in meaning:


The negative carries an implied presumption of "correctness", whereas without the negative it comes across as an actual question to be answered.

However, there is an additional implication, which I think is stronger in your specific case than in the examples in the other answer, which is that "wasn't" seems to imply this was something you already discussed or something they should have already known.

I would recommend using:

Was this supposed to be cupboard instead of cupbard?

in your specific case if you mean to show politeness about the error and allow the author to correct it; by making it a question you're sort of indicating it's an easy error anyone could make and prompting them to re-check their work.

I would recommend using:

Wasn't this supposed to be cupboard instead of cupbard?

if you have already discussed this and came to an agreement that the correct spelling is "cupboard" but your coworker keeps stubbornly spelling it a different way and you are frustrated with them.

  • Thank you so much for your thorough explanation and for taking time answering this. I appreciated it!
    – user173525
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 4:19

The second form, “Wasn’t it ...?” is a rhetorical question. You expect the answer to be “yes.”

The first form, in written English, is a normal question that could be answered either way. In spoken English, you’d use different of tones of voice to hint that you think the person ought to disagree, that they ought to agree, or that you’re sincerely uncertain. You might indicate those with emphasis: “Was this supposed to be cupbard?” should be read aloud with the word was in a higher pitch, to mention only one way. You could also indicate this through word choice: “Was this really supposed to be ...?”

In this context, pointing out a student’s spelling mistake, making it into a rhetorical question was probably intended as a more polite way of saying, “You misspelled ‘cupboard.’” This further implies that the writer did know, and just made an accidental, minor typo. But the teacher doesn’t want to leave any ambiguity about whether it’s an error. Therefore, I think “wasn’t” is clearer. However, in many other situations, a rhetorical question could come across as rude, or even sarcastic. So use them with care. The “was” variant is gentler, but doesn’t communicate as clearly that there is a problem that needs to be fixed.

  • Thank you so much. This would help me choose better words in the future :)
    – user173525
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 4:22

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