Negative Questions – How to use them and answer them in English

Negative questions can be confusing in English. In this video lesson we demonstrate different ways native speakers use them and you’ll also learn the best ways to answer them.
Negative questions can be very confusing in English. In this lesson we’re going to look different ways we use them and you’ll also learn the best ways to answer them.
Let’s get very polite and start with the formal use. Imagine an important guest is visiting your office. You want to make a good impression and make them feel welcome.

Won’t you come in? Won’t you sit down? Won’t you have a drink?

So Jay invited his guest to do things with negative questions. Instead of saying ‘will’, he said ‘won’t’.

Hey, I’m a very polite guy.

Great – so that’s the first way we use negative questions. They’re very formal and extra polite questions – questions we might ask to make offers and invitations.

Good morning Mr Hale.
Good morning. I just dropped by to return your umbrella.
Oh thank you.
Won’t you come in?

Now imagine you want to come in. Should you answer the question yes or no? Generally we’d say ‘Yes’ for I will come in and ‘No’ for I won’t come in. But the question wasn’t ‘will you’. It was ‘won’t you’. So are these answers logical? Not really. It’s a bit confusing, isn’t it? Let’s listen to some answers.

Good morning Mr Hale.
Good morning. I just dropped by to return your umbrella.
Oh thank you. Won’t you come in?
Thank you.

Won’t you have something to drink
Oh thank you. I’d like that.

The best way to answer a negative question is to avoid saying just ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Say something else instead so you’re very clear.

Won’t you sit down?

If I say ‘no’, does it mean I won’t sit down or I will sit down? It probably means I won’t, but it’s not 100% clear. Sometimes answers to negative questions confuse English speakers. Here’s what you could say to be clear.

Won’t you sit down?
Oh, thank you. That’s very kind of you.

And if you want to refuse the offer…

Won’t you sit down?
Oh no thanks. I can only stay a minute.
Oh that’s too bad.

So add information when you’re answering a negative question. Be extra clear because a simple yes or no can be confusing. Great!
OK, now are you ready for part two? We’re going to look at another way we use negative questions and this use is much more common.

Vicki bought me a new tie and I love it. I’m going to wear it tonight. But first I have to cut the label off.
Are you ready?
Yes.
Oh. Aren’t you going to wear your new tie?
No, I don’t think so.
Don’t you like it?
I love it. But I had an accident.
Oh.

Notice I didn’t ask ‘Are you going to wear it?’ I was expecting Jay to wear the tie so I asked ‘Aren’t you going to wear it?’ When we’re surprised by something, we often ask a negative question. I thought Jay liked the tie so I was surprised. If we expect one thing and then something else happens, we ask a negative question. See how many you can spot in this conversation.

Oh, hi Kathy
Hi. Where’s the Boston report? I haven’t seen it yet.
Oh, weren’t you writing it Jay?
Err yes.
Good, then can I have it?
I’m afraid it’s not ready.
Haven’t you finished it?
No. I couldn’t find the figures I needed.
But Kathy gave you the figures, Jay.
Yes, didn’t I give you a thumb drive with all of the information?
Sorry. I lost it.
Oh Jay.
Erm. Was it this thumb drive?
Oh you found it!
Yes. It was on the floor in the break room.
Oh well done Vicki.
Thank you.
Good. Finish the report. I want it on my desk this afternoon.
Yes Kathy. I’ve been looking everywhere for this.
Yes, I found it a week ago.
Then why didn’t you give it to me?

How many did you spot? Let’s see.

Hi. Where’s the Boston report? I haven’t seen it yet.
Oh, weren’t you writing it Jay?

We were expecting Jay to write it, but he hadn’t, so I asked a negative question. And Kathy expected it to be finished.

Haven’t you finished it?
No. I couldn’t find the figures I needed.

She had given Jay a thumb drive with the figures he needed.

But Kathy gave you the figures, Jay.
Yes, didn’t I give you a thumb drive with all of the information?
Sorry. I lost it.
Oh Jay.

And there was one more.

I’ve been looking everywhere for this.
Yes, I found it a week ago.
Then why didn’t you give it to me?

So we often use negative questions when we think things aren’t quite right or as they should be. And this means that sometimes we use them when we’re nagging. What’s nagging? Let’s see.

Oh, your desk’s a mess. Aren’t you going to put that in the bin?
Oh yeah.
Why don’t you tidy these papers and wash those glasses up?
Oh stop nagging.

Nagging is complaining, often in an annoying way. So we might ask a negative question when we want to complain a little bit.

Aren’t you dressed yet?
Do I appear to be dressed?
Do dress, do hurry. It’s the most wonderful day.
Aren’t you dressed yet?
Do I appear to be dressed?
Do dress, do hurry. It’s the most wonderful day.

This car’s nearly out of gas. Don’t you ever fill it up?
I thought you could do it for me.
This car’s nearly out of gas. Don’t you ever fill it up?
I thought you could do it for me.

Can’t you go any faster?
I can but the horse can’t.
Can’t you go any faster?
I can but the horse can’t. Ha Ha ha

So let’s review. We use negative questions in two ways. Polite invitations and when we’re surprised. When you answer a negative question, add information to be extra clear. And also be careful when you ask negative questions because you might sound like you’re complaining. In a lot of Central European languages negative questions are extra polite, but they’re not always polite in English. You don’t want to sound like you’re nagging if you’re not.

Oh, your desk’s a mess. Aren’t you going to put that in the bin?
Oh yeah.
Why don’t you tidy these papers and wash those glasses up?
Oh stop nagging.
I’m not nagging. I just thought you’d want to clear up before Kathy comes.
Kathy’s coming here?
Yes, did I forget to tell you?
Good morning. Oh Jay, your desk’s a mess!
Sorry Kathy.

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