3

Do these three mean the same thing? If not, could you please explain the difference between them in simple words.

  1. Isn't he certain?
  2. Is he not certain?
  3. Is he uncertain?

In a context:

  1. Why did he say that? Wasn't he certain of what he was talking about?
  2. Why did he say that? Was he not certain of what he was talking about?
  3. Why did he say that? Was he uncertain of what he was talking about?

I'm asking this question because I want to know how to ask genuine negative questions in English. I used to think that it's just done by adding "not" to the sentence before the verb, after the subject, like here:

  • Is it legal to smoke in here? (I want to know if it is legal to smoke in here)
  • Is it not legal to smoke in here? (I want to know if it isn’t legal (=illegal) to smoke in here)

But then, several native speakers told me that even adding “not” right before the verb (= after the subject) does not make it a genuine question. It is an expression of surprise, like it might be a little difficult for the speaker to believe that it is not = "How is that it is not legal?".

I had thought that that was the thing of a question with "not" before the subject (often in a contraction: "Isn't he there?", "Don't you know it?"), unlike where "not" goes right before the verb, after the subject and without a contraction (“Is he not there?”, “Do you not know it?”. In order words, this is how I’d thought it to be:

  • Is he certain? (I want to know if he is certain = a genuine positive question = I'm trying to gain information, I have no idea if he is)
  • Is he not certain? (I want to know if he isn’t certain=uncertain = a genuine negative question = I'm trying to gain information, I have no idea if he is not)
  • Isn't he certain? (It might be a little difficult for me to believe that he is not certain = an expression of surprise = How is that he is not certain?)

Now, that I know I had been using one of them incorrectly and I see that both “Is he not …?” and “Isn’t he …?” express a surprise, the question arises again:

How do I ask a genuine negative question? How is it done in English? Will using a morphological negation rather than a syntactical negation help?

A new, fixed version with a suggestion at the bottom:

  • Is he certain? (I want to know if he is certain = a genuine positive question = I'm trying to gain information, I have no idea if he is)
  • Is he not certain? (It might be a little difficult for me to believe that he is not certain = an expression of surprise = How is that he is not certain?)
  • Isn't he certain? (It might be a little difficult for me to believe that he is not certain = an expression of surprise = How is that he is not certain?)

BUT:

  • Is he uncertain? (I want to know if he is uncertain (= isn't certain) = a genuine negative question = I'm trying to gain information, I have no idea if he isn't certain/is uncertain)

And even if so, even if using a morphological negation rather than a syntactical negation will help (to ask a genuine negative question in English), what do I do with words that don’t have a morphological negation, like, say, “see”?

10
  • Are you looking for a specific technical answer in terms of "law". Words like "illegal" and "unlawful" (which seem to be the same) have specialist meanings to lawyers.
    – James K
    Commented Apr 9 at 13:22
  • (1), (2) and (3) all mean the same (in both cases). Asking if a fact is true should elicit the answer "Yes" or "No". Asking if it is not true (your negative question) implies that you would be surprised to learn that it is true. Commented Apr 9 at 13:35
  • I've been told by many native speakers that (1) and (2) mean the same (surprise), while (3) is a genuine question. Commented Apr 9 at 14:16
  • Here forum.wordreference.com/threads/… Commented Apr 9 at 14:19
  • In case you didn't see it, I'll write it here. I thought that "Do you not understand?" means that I'm trying to gain information, I have no idea if you do not, but Wordy McWordface told me that both "Do you not understand?" and "Don't you understand?" mean that It might be a little difficult for the speaker to believe that you do not = How is that you do not understand? (Which means - neither of them is a genuine question). That's why below that thread I came up with a morphological negation to fix this issue in English. Commented Apr 9 at 14:23

3 Answers 3

4

Don't confuse grammar with normal usage:

Question: Is he uncertain? (I want to know if he is uncertain (= isn't certain) = a genuine negative question = I'm trying to gain information, I have no idea if he isn't certain/is uncertain).

  • Is he certain of the time?, regular question, yes/no answer
  • Isn't he certain of the time?
    The expectation here with a negative interrogative is that the person asking the question does expect a YES, but that person can receive a NO [Yes, he is; No, he isn't] OR the questioner is surprised the other person doesn't know the time. Only context will tell you which it means.

All three are the same thing. We tend to use contractions in conversations, not long forms.

  • He isn't certain of the time.
  • He is not certain of the time.
  • He is uncertain of the time.

uncertain can be a way to say: not certain.

legal and illegal work the same way:

  • It isn't legal to drive without a license.
  • It is illegal to drive without a license.
  • Isn't it illegal to drive without a license? [Expecting a YES, could receive a NO OR could express surprise.]

Also, don't forget the tags we use very often in English:

  • It's illegal to drive without a license, isn't it? [Expecting a yes]
  • It isn't legal to drive without a license, is it? [Expecting a no]
  • It isn't illegal to drive without a license, is it? [Expecting a no]

The expected answer y/n is given by the main verb.However, the expected answer might not be the one one gets.

Finally, we don't say a genuine negative question. There are yes/no questions with or without tags and there are yes/no negative interrogative questions with or without tags.

Finally, there are open ended questions: What does he know about the time?

[BY THE WAY, of course driving without a license is illegal. I just used the example for the question].

2
  • Since some people seem confused about what "no" means in response to a negative question, it might be worth mentioning that e.g. "It's illegal to drive without a license, isn't it?" "No." means that it's not illegal. But "It isn't legal to drive without a license, is it?" "No." means that it's not legal. But I'm sure there's a separate question on this.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 10 at 13:43
  • @StuartF I said the answer to a question with a tag is in the main verb: It's illegal to drive without a license, isn't it? Expected answer: Yes, it is. It isn't illegal to do x, is it? Expected answer: No, it isn't. And I said you might not receive the expected one. That's part of the whole point of my answer. So, I think it's answered.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 10 at 15:57
0

The version with not can connote some surprise on the part of the speaker upon learning that it was false.

Is it not true?

Is it false?

Speakers might use the first version, "Is it not true?" to indicate that they had believed that it was indeed true.

I wanted to drive the car barefoot. It is OK where I come from. Is that not legal here?

Or a speaker might use the "not" form as a kind of challenging question. A police investigator assigned to a murder might pose a question like this when interrogating a suspect:

Mr Jones, is it not true that you and your former business partner had a dispute over which of you was the rightful owner of a certain plot of land?

The suspect is being given a chance to deny something that is being presented as true.

0

But then, several native speakers told me that even adding “not” right before the verb (= after the subject) does not make it a genuine question. It is an expression of surprise, like it might be a little difficult for the speaker to believe that it is not = "How is that it is not legal?".

I will try and keep this simple. As a general rule, I don't see anything wrong with simply adding "not". That way of wording the negative should be understood in most contexts and doesn't really disrupt typical English speech patterns.

"Is he uncertain?" is essentially the same as "Is he not certain?" The majority of the time using the negative should be understood by most English speakers to be roughly equivalent. Though it's worth noting that putting too much emphasis on the NOT will come across as surprise or incredulousness.

The only real issue with using this negative form is that it doesn't work as well with ambiguous subjects. The more ambiguous the subject, the more the connotation is that you are specifically asking what it is not instead of asking "which is it?".

Using the example from the subject:

"Is it legal?" isn't quite the same as "Is it not legal?", because with laws there is room for grey area. So this example is actually a little tricky because of the nuances. So while the answer is OFTEN yes or no, it isn't always as clear cut because something can be "technically legal", or "mostly legal", and other flavors of not-quite-yes-or-no.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .