Responding to negative questions

In English, we usually give short yes/no answers to questions using tag endings. For example, if I ask you, “Do you speak English?” you answer, “Yes, I do.” The I do part of your answer is the tag ending. Always use tag endings when you give short yes/no answers because they will make your answer clear and will help you avoid making mistakes when you answer negative questions.

A negative question asks the same information as a positive question, so the answer to the questions below should all be the same, if you are in fact Japanese:

QUESTION: Are you Japanese?  OR  You’re not Japanese, are you?  OR  Aren’t you Japanese?

ANSWER: Yes, I am. 

In English, you cannot answer, “Yes, I’m not.” or “No, I am.” This would be grammatically incorrect. To make it easy for you to respond properly to negative questions, focus on the tag ending part of your response. The tag ending tells the truth in your answer. After you decide your tag ending, then you can think quickly and add the appropriate yes or no to the beginning of your answer.

Below are some examples. Assume the following about yourself: You speak Japanese, you are a student, you are 18 years old, you are from Kyushu, you are not afraid of spiders, you don’t smoke, you eat natto every day, you can’t speak French

QUESTION: Don’t you speak JapaneseANSWER: Yes, I do. 

QUESTION: Aren’t you a teacherANSWER: No, I’m not. I’m a student. 

QUESTION: You are 21 years old, aren’t you?  ANSWER: No, I’m not. I’m only 18. 

QUESTION: You’re not from Kyushu, are you?  ANSWER: Yes, I am.

QUESTION: You don’t smoke, do you?  ANSWER: No, I don’t. 

QUESTION: Don’t you eat natto every day. ANSWER: Yes, I do. 

QUESTION: Can’t you speak French? ANSWER: No, I can’t. 

More examples:

TRUTH: You did not your homework.

QUESTION: Didn’t you do your homework?  ANSWER: No, I didn’t. 

TRUTH: You went to the party last night.

QUESTION: Didn’t you go to the party last night?  ANSWER: Yes, I did.

TRUTH: You can swim.

QUESTION: You can’t swim, can you?   ANSWER: Yes, I can.  

TRUTH: You were not able to get up in time to catch the train.

QUESTION: Couldn’t you get up in time?  ANSWER: No, I couldn’t.

TRUTH: You didn’t give him the answers.

QUESTION: You didn’t give him the answers, did you?  ANSWER: No, I didn’t. 

Why do we ask negative questions?

If negative questions and positive questions mean the same thing, why do we ask them? The answer is the nuance in meaning that the different types of questions carry. Here is an example

Do you speak English?

I don’t know if you speak English or not. I am asking to find the truth.

Don’t you speak English?

I think you speak English, but I’m not sure. I am asking to confirm the truth.


(if tone is negative) I am upset that you don’t appear to be able to speak English.

You don’t speak English, do you?

I think you don’t speaking English, but I’m not sure. I am asking to confirm the truth.


(if tone is playful) I think you do actually speak English, but I am teasing you with the question.

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