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  1. #1
    Lenka is offline Senior Member
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    Default negative questions

    If you ask a negative question in English (starting with the verb e.g. Didn't you go to school today?, not You didn't go to school today?), you show your surprise about the thing you ask, right?

    But would it also possible that such a negative question wouldn't express the questioner's surprise but would be just an expression of politeness?
    For example, imagine the following situation: you meet someone very famous, e.g. Bill Gates. When you meet him, you say: "Good morning, aren't you Bill Gates (by chance - BTW, would it be correct to use "by chance" in auch a context?) ?"

    I just wonder if it is possible to ask a negative question in a positive meaning. In fact, you know for sure it's Bill Gates, but to be polite, you ask him the negative question. You expect him to answer "Yes, I am.", not "No, I am not.", actually. Would it be correct?
    In German, you can also say (for example) "Sind Sie nicht der berühmte Linguist, der...?" (Are you not the famous linguist, who...?), so I just wonder whether it's all the same in English.

  2. #2
    Anglika is offline No Longer With Us
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    Default Re: negative questions

    Putting the verb first in a negative question does not mean you show surprise - your original question "Didn't you go to school today?" is perfectly normal and how I would ask this. "You didn't go to school today?" [rising inflexion at the end] does indicate surprise.

    In your second example [and no, do not include "by chance" in this question], I can see no real difference in politeness between asking "Are you Bill Gates?" and "Aren't you Bill Gates?". If you asked "Are you by any chance Bill Gates?", I would feel this was a more formal approach. All leave the other person free to say "Yes, I am" or "No, I am not".

    In English you can also ask "Are you not xxxx?" - again it is more formal and will not be heard too often.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: negative questions

    Speaking personally, I would use either construction to ask a question: "Wasn't the building destroyed in the fire?" wouldn't express surprise any differently from "[You mean], the building wasn't destroyed in the fire?"

    "Aren't you so-and-so" does indeed express a polite reticence, but I'm not sure I can separate that from actual uncertainty. "Excuse me, but didn't we meet at the Smith's pork roast last weekend?" is no more polite than "Hello, I hope you remember me---we met at the Smith's pork roast last weekend," but in the first case, you're not absolutely positive this is the same person.

    If the person then replies, "Sorry, I'm a Jewish vegetarian, and I don't know anybody named Smith," you will be less embarrassed if you have used the first form :)

    However, I am able to think of one situation where I use a negative question solely to be polite. If someone has made a mistake and you want to correct them, it's politer to phrase it as a question. "Wasn't that enacted during the first Gulf war?" is more polite than, "That was enacted during the first Gulf war," even if you know darned well that it was. (And there is always that rare case when you aren't right! so again, using this form can save face :))

  4. #4
    Lenka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: negative questions

    Thank you for your answers, Anglika and Delmobile!

    It took me some time before I decided to have a look in some grammar books etc., into the chapter about negative questions.
    I've learned many new things.

    If you didn't post into the thread and didn't write what you wrote, I wouldn't probably look into the grammar books to find out some more information because I thought that the position of the verb really changes the meaning (But "Don't you see it?" is just equal to "You don't see it?", right?).
    By the way, the form of You don't see it?, i.e. with the position of the verb after the subject, is completelly standard? It isn't used as much as the first form of the sentence, is it?

    I think most of the negative questions express either surprise or are used when the speaker expects the listener to agree with him or her. Are there any exceptions?

    You know, in Czech, you can say "Don't you have some free time today?" and it means the same as "Do you have some free time today?". I mean you can sometimes ask either in a negative or positive way and it will mean the same. That's why Czech pupils are taught that they shouldn't use negative questions because they express surprise. This is the truth, actually, isn't it?
    When you say "Don't you have some free time today?", you're surprised that the other person really has no free time today, aren't you?

  5. #5
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    Default Re: negative questions

    I don't know if I would use the word "surprise," but yes, the negative form can imply that the speaker assumed the opposite.

    A & B are meeting for lunch.

    a: Let's go to that new place on Elm Street.

    b: No, it will take us too long to get there. We won't have enough time to eat.

    a: What do you mean? Don't you get an hour for lunch?

    b: No, I only get half an hour.

    Not always, though. This form is frequently used by older people addressing children: "My, don't you look pretty today?" or "Aren't you a polite young man?" The speaker did not expect the children to be ugly or rude; it's just, well, a manner of speaking.

    "Don't you see it?" and "You don't see it?" are roughly the same in meaning, in my opinion.

  6. #6
    Lenka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: negative questions

    Thank you, Delmobile!


    Quote Originally Posted by Delmobile View Post
    Not always, though. This form is frequently used by older people addressing children: "My, don't you look pretty today?" or "Aren't you a polite young man?" The speaker did not expect the children to be ugly or rude; it's just, well, a manner of speaking.
    Yes, I know... after studying the grammar books :
    Quote Originally Posted by Lenka View Post
    I think most of the negative questions express either surprise or are used when the speaker expects the listener to agree with him or her.
    other examples (from a grammar book):
    Isn't it a beautiful day!
    Haven't we met somewhere before?

  7. #7
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    Default Re: negative questions

    These grammar books certainly seem to have the matter well in hand.
    :)

    I'm thinking of a couple of ironic/sarcastic expressions used when you've had bad luck, or a minor crisis. "Wouldn't you just know it [that this would happen to me]?" or "Ain't that always the way?" etc. These would also fall under the category of expecting the listener to agree, so the book's got 'em covered.

  8. #8
    Lenka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: negative questions

    Thanks, Delmobile, I really appreciate you telling me more and more example sentences because that's what I need to hear (or read) to learn how to use the negative questions!
    You're nice; thank you! :)

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