Which sentence with the question word order or with the usual word order should I use in this situation? Do those two questions mean the same thing here or is there some difference in meaning between them?

The situation:

One day a student of mine in my class did not have the textbook. We agreed that she would go to the college bookstore after class to buy the book. After class she went to the bookstore to buy the book and a few minutes later I left and while I was walking to my car, I saw the student leaving the bookstore but she didn't have the book or a bag in her hand so I was thinking that the bookstore had sold out or had run out of the book. But I wasn't 100% sure so I asked her this question:

  1. They don't have the book?
  2. Don't they have the book?

(By some native speaker, I've just been told here that the whole difference just boils down to formal/informal English, but I doubt that since it sometimes might be difficult to look at your own language from the outside)

1 Answer 1


The statement spoken as a question "They don't have the book?" would mark that this is strongly counter to expectations.

-- I went to the bookstore and but they don't have the book.

-- They don't have the book? But just yesterday I was in the bookshop and there was a big pile of them. Are you certain you went to the right shop?

You had a strong expectation that the book would be in the shop, but now you are told that it is not. You aren't really asking for information. Mostly you are expressing surprise.

"Don't they have the book?" as a negative question also expresses surprise, but it is phrased a question and is a genuine question which the person should answer.

In your case, you are asking a genuine question, and so "Don't they have the book?" is appropriate.

  • It's quite interesting that you chose "Don't they have the book?" since this american girl chose otherwise. She used "They don't have the book?" in this case. Is it the difference between American English and British English or something else? (here at 2:05) youtube.com/… Commented Apr 9 at 14:37
  • The story starts at 1:25. For your convenience. Commented Apr 9 at 14:38
  • 1
    Not really "You don't have kids" is what you'd say if you assume that I have kids, but you learn that I don't.
    – James K
    Commented Apr 9 at 15:09
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    @IlyaTretyakov - people don't speak like rule-based robot would. Both ways of asking the question are possible, when you do (and when you don't) expect a particular answer. Commented Apr 9 at 16:52
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    @IlyaTretyakov - 'But what I see now is that nobody can give a straight answer.' - yes. This is not because we are deliberately trying to be awkward, but because native speakers often break, ignore, or do not know about the 'rules' that are taught to learners, especially in informal speech. Commented Apr 10 at 9:44

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