One of the things that my students frequently ask me about is how to reply to a negative question or negative statement in English. This type of sentence presents an interesting challenge that bewilders many students over the course of their English studies. Essentially, it first asserts an opinion or evaluation that is negative, and then asks for confirmation of it with a tagline.  


Two examples of such sentences are:


  • She never goes abroad, does she?
  • They aren’t ready for class, are they?


In both cases, the first part is an assertion and the second turns it into a question. Both have taglines (repetition for confirmation) at the end that show they are questions asking for agreement of some kind.


These same negative assertions can exist without a tagline and mean the same thing, but in declaration form. For instance: He isn’t ready for class! Such examples, however, are more like little reports of information. They are also rhetorical in nature, meaning that they are not actually questions, nor are they asking for confirmation. Instead, they are simply personal discoveries or reflections said out loud.


Agreeing with a negative question or statement


However, while these types of sentences can be confusing, there is a very easy way to show your agreement with them. All you have to say it: That’s right! or That’s correct!.


The key feature to remember here is that it is fairly confusing to simply answer Yes! in order to confirm/agree with a negative in English. So, you must find an alternative way to answer this kind of question. That’s right! or That’s correct! both solve this problem by allowing you to reply to the general idea of the question.


However, while this method is easier, it is not very precise, nor does it address the specific grammar of the sentence. Since grammar is the method that most ESL/EFL students use to learn sentence constructions, let's use it to look more deeply at these types of questions. Bear in mind though, that this will be a little confusing, since we are using binary logic (yes/no, either/or).


So, how do we agree with a negative question in a grammatically accurate way? Consider this scenario: Somebody doubts your ability to use English well. They say, You're not very good! or You can't speak English very well, can you?. You would like to agree with their assessment and give a factual and polite answer. You would also like to give a better answer than just saying That’s right!.


So, when they ask you this, here's the grammatical formula to use:


  1. Say No.
  2. Change the subject of the sentence to fit the subject of your answer (in this case, you would change the you to I).
  3. Repeat the negative verb (conjugated correctly of course).


Thus, using these rules, the You can't speak English very well, can you? would change to No (1) I (2) can’t (3), or No, I can’t. Similarly, the You're not very good! would change to No (1) I (2) am not (3) or No, I am not.


This is an important rule of English grammar. As you can see in the examples above, you just don't use yes when agreeing with a negative assessment in English. Thus, Yes, I can't speak it very well is incorrect.


So remember, in order to agree with a negative assertion or idea (and seem natural when doing so), you simply have to repeat the negative. As a result, your answers should sound like the following:


  • No, I can't.
  • No, she doesn’t.
  • No, he won’t.


If these grammatical explanations appear a bit convoluted, don’t worry. This type of grammar is very strange to many non-native English speakers and is one of the most difficult parts of English to master, along with the dreaded prepositions and articles. In fact, the idea of repeating a negative in order to agree with it is completely absurd in Japanese, and thus it makes sense that it could be confusing for speakers of other languages. Nevertheless, you do have to learn this if you want to speak English properly.


So, let’s review how we can answer a negative statement or question.


First of all, you can simply reply by saying That's correct, which would follow the logic used in most Asian languages. This means that after you hear a statement like You're not very good, you would answer That's right in agreement. However, you need to remember that in this case, you are referring more generally to the overall negative meaning of the sentence, and not to its precise details.


On the other hand, if you want to respond in a grammatically accurate way, you should just say No!, then add the subject and the negative form of the verb, conjugated correctly. You should also keep in mind that whatever negative you hear (no, not, never, not ever), should be mirrored in your answer. For example, the reply to You never go out, do you? Would be No, I never go out.


In sum, if someone says You didn't see the accident, did you?, you should reply No, I didn't or That's right ...!


Just say no to no, and you’ll be alright!


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