How to Disagree like a Native Speaker

Disagreeing is tricky in any language. It means you’re saying someone else is wrong or different and linguists have found it’s a dispreferred response.
In this lesson we look at some steps English native speakers often follow when they disagree:

  • Hesitating
    Asking challenging questions
    Saying ‘yes but…’ and adding their objections

We note how the phrases I agree and I don’t agree are explicit and formal and hence have limited uses in everyday conversations, namely to report other people’s opinions and to clear up misunderstandings.

Click here to see our video on 12 ways to agree in English

Disagreeing in English

Is this the design?
Uhuh.
Oh nice! You should do it in colour.
I like black and white.
No, you don’t. You’re only saying that because I suggested colour.
Well, you’re always wrong.
So whatever I say, you’re always going to disagree?
Yes.
You know, you’re absolutely right.
Really?
Yep. Black and white is perfect.
You think so?
Yeah. Don’t change a thing.
Then I’m going to make it in color.
OK.
What just happened there?

Agreeing is easy in English and we’ve made another video about that.
Disagreeing is harder because people don’t like to disagree.
It can damage relationships.
So how do we disagree in English?
In this video you’ll learn some of the things we say, and some things we don’t say too.
Let’s start with that. Look at these phrases.
I don’t agree and I disagree. They mean the same thing.
But are they common phrases in spoken English?
They’re grammatically correct.
Yes, but are they things we often say?
I’m going to guess yes.
You’re wrong!
What do you mean, I’m wrong?!
My students say them a lot, but native English speakers don’t use these phrases much in normal conversation.
How do you know?
Well, these days we have big data banks with lots of examples of spoken English so we can look at things like this.
And, we don’t say these phrases much?
Not in everyday conversation.
Then what do we say?
We need an example!

How native English speakers do it

Are you ready?
Yes.
Well let’s go. …… What’s the matter?
Are you going to wear that shirt?
Yes. It’s my Phillies championship shirt. It’s my favorite.
Yeah, but it’s ten years old.
That’s when we won the championship.
Yes, but it’s got a hole in it! Throw it away.
No way, it’s my favorite!
You look a mess.
Stop nagging.
I don’t want to be seen with you in that shirt.
Well then I’ll go on my own.

OK, so what happened there?
Well the conversation followed some steps. Linguists have found that when we disagree it often goes in steps.
What did we say?
Well first of all, I didn’t say anything.

Are you ready?
Yes.
Well let’s go. ……

You hesitated.
Yes, so first I kept quiet.
There was a pause.
And then what did I do?

Well let’s go. …. What’s the matter?
Are you going to wear that shirt?

You asked a question.
That’s very common. Instead of disagreeing we ask questions.
Challenging questions. And then what did you say?

Are you going to wear that shirt?
Yes, it’s my Phillies championship shirt. It’s my favorite.
Yeah, but it’s ten years old.
That’s when we won the championship.
Yes, but it’s got a hole in it!

You said ‘yes but…’ and raised an objection.
Yeah.
‘Yes but….’ means no!
Uhuh. ‘Yes but’ is the most common phrase we use to disagree.
And then after that, we got into a fight.
Yes, once it’s clear there’s disagreement, we say what we really think.
So there were four steps – hesitating, questioning, ‘yes but’ and then the fight.
We don’t always take every step, but it’s a typical pattern.
We start slowly and build.
Maybe you do this in your language too?

Disagreeing – a dispreferred response

Agreeing is easier. We can just say ‘You’re right’, and nobody gets upset.
Yeah.
Disagreeing is harder because we’re saying someone’s wrong or different.
Linguists call disagreeing a dispreferred response. We prefer to say ‘Yes, you’re right’.
How about if we say ‘I’m sorry but I disagree’ or ‘I’m afraid I disagree’.
So add an apology?
It softens the disagreement.
Yes, but again it’s not frequent in normal conversation. So it could sound weird. We normally say something like ‘Yes but…’ instead.

How to use I don’t agree and I disagree

So let’s go back to these phrases. Are there any situations where we do use them?
Perhaps a formal meeting. They sound formal.
‘Excuse me Ms. Chairperson. I disagree.’
Yeah, or if you’re taking part in a political discussion on a television talk show. Politicians often say them.

We can afford to make these investments. Now I know there are Republicans in Congress who disagree with my approach.
We can afford to make these investments. Now I know there are Republicans in Congress who disagree with my approach.

Notice what Obama did here. He used the verb ‘disagree’ to report other people’s opinions.
He wasn’t saying ‘I disagree with you’.
He was reporting what other people think. Here’s another example.

This is the camera we should buy.
Ooo, I see. And what does Kathy think?
She thinks we should buy this camera.
Oooo. So she doesn’t agree with you.
Yeah but Kathy doesn’t know anything about cameras.

So if we’re reporting someone else’s opinions, we’ll say they don’t agree or they disagree.
Yes, disagree is often a reporting verb. And we use it when we want to be explicit.
Being explicit means being extra clear about what we mean.
That might happen if there’s a misunderstanding.

So this camera costs $5,000.
Yes. It’s a high-end camera with all the features we need.
But this one only costs $2000.
Yeah, but it can’t shoot slow motion.
I don’t think we need that.
Exactly. We don’t need the cheaper camera.
No, I mean we don’t need slow motion. I don’t agree with you.
You think we should get the cheaper camera?
Yeah.
No!

So we misunderstood one another there.
Yes, I had to be extra clear.
And that’s why you said I don’t agree with you.
Yes. These phrases are formal and explicit, so be careful. A lot of students over use them.
Don’t use them too much.
When we disagree we normally, hesitate, question, say ‘yes but’ and add that objection.
OK. Let’s see another example of that.

There’s something wrong with that thermostat.
You know, I’ve noticed that too. The temperature keeps shooting up.
Did you say up?
Yes.
That’s weird. I thought it went down. It should be 75 degrees.
Why do you want it to be 75 degrees?
It’s a comfortable temperature.
Yes, for you. But I like it at 65.
Yes, but you can take your jacket off if you get too hot.
Why don’t you wear more clothes?
65 is freezing!

It is freezing! You agree with me, don’t you?
Feel free to disagree in the comments.
And that’s it for today everyone.
Is that all? We’re done already?
Uhuh.
But we haven’t looked at how we can prevent arguments in English.
We’ll do that another day.
So make sure you subscribe to our channel everyone.
And hit the notification bell so you don’t miss it.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this video and find it useful.
If you have, please share it with a friend.
See you next week everyone. Bye-bye.
Bye.

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